As Ontario Premier Mike Harris sang his government's praises yesterday in announcing his resignation, he indulged in a major piece of understatement. "Over the past six years," he said, "I believe we've changed politics in Ontario."
Yes indeed, for better and for worse.
Mr. Harris's greatest contribution to political life has been to crack the mindset too many Ontarians had of entitlement and limitless public resources. He has taken an axe to the fiscal deficit. He has been prepared to suffer the opposition of many to create a more accountable and cost-efficient public sector for all.
But he will also be remembered for the discord his government fed -- urban against rural, haves against have-nots, public schools against private -- and for the scorn with which he treated dissent, making politics a meaner place. That is the legacy he did not speak of yesterday.
In 1995, the Ontario voters, having tried David Peterson's spendthrift Liberals and Bob Rae's nanny-state New Democrats and found both wanting, turned to Mr. Harris's Conservatives. Although the party was an unknown force -- the Tories had fallen far since the heady days under Bill Davis in the 1970s and 80s -- Mr. Harris and those around him devised a radical strategy. They would tell voters what they planned to do if elected, and, once elected, would keep their promises.
Their platform, the Common Sense Revolution, pledged to slash taxes, reduce government spending and overhaul the bureaucracy. It touched a responsive chord in many voters, particularly in the affluent suburbs outside Toronto and in rural and northern parts of the province. It attracted those who were tired of government waste and of taxes they felt were being devoted to programs that spoke of equality and social justice but translated into red tape and endless tribunals.
Mr. Harris took his 1995 election victory as a licence to effect sweeping change. He reduced taxes, overhauled the education system and (less successfully) the health system, and halved the welfare rolls. He took advantage of the boom times fuelled by U.S. expansion. Within a few years he had eliminated the annual deficit, even as he introduced corporate, capital-gains and personal tax cuts. Ontario still carries a heavy accumulated debt, but Mr. Harris deserves all credit for bringing fiscal responsibility to a province that had not known it for years.
His instincts on primary and secondary education were sound. The system was rudderless; children were passing through with no useful measurement of their progress, or lack of it. The Tories moved quickly to equalize funding for schools provincewide, introduce a better curriculum and institute standardized tests.
The problem, as in other areas, was the government's preference for confrontation over the inclusive approach that had marked the Davis Conservatives. Then-education-minister John Snobelen had set the tone in 1995 when he told senior bureaucrats that the way to achieve major change was to "invent a crisis."
The government also decided, reasonably, to hand local services to local governments. But the effect of its changes was to leave Toronto and other cities without the money they needed to handle their new responsibilities. The collapse of social housing has helped create a new generation of homeless people. The transit systems that make the cities work are crumbling for lack of funds. Though he appears to have had a change of heart in recent months, prompted by his party's distress in the polls, Mr. Harris was content for most of his time in power to let Toronto, the economic engine of the province, deteriorate badly.
As the Premier resigns, his chickens are returning to roost. The E. coli-related deaths in the town of Walkerton last year were the product of actions by a local utilities manager, but evidence before the Walkerton inquiry has implicated the government's dismantling of an early-warning system -- part of its agenda of cost-cutting. And it increasingly appears that the 1995 shooting of a native protester followed an order from the Premier's office to end the protest immediately.
Mike Harris deserves much credit for pulling Ontario back from a potentially ruinous fiscal path. Those of us who share many of his instincts for reform, particularly in education, must hope for a leader less prone to pursue those instincts by dividing the province into us and them.