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opinion

Tim Hudak, MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook, is the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.

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Twenty years is a long time, and memories are short. Long forgotten now is the once-widespread astonishment that a politician would set out so methodically to do exactly what he said he would do.

This is the story of Mike Harris. Even before becoming Ontario premier, on June 26, 1995, Mike had tossed away the playbook. A year earlier, he had rolled out the Common Sense Revolution. It was met with ridicule from the pundits, who called it a U.S. Republican import. Voters, however, saw it as a made-in-Ontario antidote to bloated government, ballooning deficits, massive job losses and economic stagnation.

As John Ibbitson put it in his book, Promised Land: "The old stock in Hastings and Elgin had voted for the Tories; the new stock in Vaughan and Markham joined them. Farmers and commuters, WASPs and nouveaux arrivistes, auto workers in Oshawa and computer programmers in Kanata had all embraced the CSR. More, they had affirmed the values behind it, and had voted to return the province to the principles of thrift, balance and personal responsibility."

Within days, the new premier was clearing the deadwood: Photo-radar revenue-grab vans? Parked. Unfair NDP hiring quotas? No more. Unaccountable school-board tax hikes? Gone. Within a few years, Ontario's immense deficit was gone too. Employment was up, welfare dependency was down, taxes fell while revenues rose, and Ontario's economy was outperforming not just every province, but every OECD country. And student achievement began to climb with a more rigorous curriculum and standardized testing, overseen by a new Education Quality and Accountability Office.

So Mike was re-elected in 1999 with a larger share of the popular vote. Even people who said they would never vote for the man expressed admiration for his guts. Mr. Harris didn't bend to expediency, as so many others had before. This guy was something else.

He also raised the bar by saying just what he meant. It has since dropped right back down. And only now, with tales of government venality percolating from the headlines, has anyone even noticed.

Mike inspired me and a generation of young leaders to enter public life. John Baird, Tony Clement and the late Jim Flaherty, all part of the Class of '95 as I was, and who would serve with distinction at Queen's Park and in Ottawa. I became leader of the Ontario PCs. I tried to follow his example, by boldly diagnosing what ailed our province, and offering a clear-eyed vision of what was required to put us on a better path. And I remain convinced that what we prescribed will come to pass, bringing with it more jobs, better take-home pay and a government we can afford.

But this story wasn't just about winning, and Mike Harris was always more than a politician. He was, and remains, a cause. He made conservatives proud again. And the things he built were so enduring that it has taken his successors a generation to tear them down – while creating a make-believe "narrative" of those times that simply does not align with what he achieved.

So here's what I say to our next crop of leaders: Remember the example of Mike Harris. Forget conventional wisdom. Forge your own path through your own convictions. Tell the truth. Stand up to opponents of more affordable government. There's no sense feeding the alligators more and more – just so they eat you last.

Above all else, do what you said you would do. This is the lesson of Mike Harris. And today, 20 years on, it's more relevant than ever.