Harris Calls Election

Most government leaders like to cloak themselves in the trappings of high office when they call an election.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 17, 1999

Most government leaders like to cloak themselves in the trappings of high office when they call an election.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 17, 1999

Harris Calls Election

Most government leaders like to cloak themselves in the trappings of high office when they call an election. Unleashing the hounds for a June 3 vote, Ontario Premier Mike HARRIS chose instead the sunlit backyard of Lindsay Mason, a resident of small-town Newmarket who runs a marketing and promotion business. This was a symbolic visit for Harris, maybe even a superstitious one: four years ago, when he launched his bold plan to cut Ontario taxes by 30 per cent in the teeth of a huge deficit - and with fellow Conservatives across the country counselling him to balance the books first - he did it in Lindsay Mason's living room. Now, he wanted to come back, with jaded media in tow, to demonstrate how well she was getting on with her life. But even in sunny Newmarket, the anxieties and lack of civility that has characterized Ontario's return to prosperity were only a shout away. Harris's songs of praise to his own tax-cutting prowess - and his boast that he was the only true leader in the race - were nearly drowned out by protesters chanting "Bye-bye, Mike." Suddenly, all of Canada found itself in Mason's backyard, wondering whether Ontario would be the place where voters said enough to tax cuts - we want our hospitals and schools the way they were.

Across the street, Mason's neighbours were aghast at the spectacle - the four police cruisers, an entire block of media buses and remote transmitting equipment, the 30 or so chanting protesters who had hired their own bus and followed the media entourage to its destination, despite elaborate attempts by the premier's office to keep the location secret. "At first, I thought it was a murder," said Guido Dewinne, who lives across the street (back at Queen's Park, the opposition parties discovered through a curt news release that the election had been called - no courtesy phone call from the premier or a senior representative, as had been the case in the past). But once he had taken stock of the situation, Dewinne allowed he was probably going to vote for Harris again: "He did what he promised. He pushed through a lot of things that have been lying around for years."

That is a prevailing sentiment in the burgeoning new housing developments of middle Ontario, but will it be enough to carry the day? Harris called the election with voters widely polarized about his performance - and his party trailing the opposition Liberals by five or six percentage points, according to two surveys that came out on the eve of the call. (A third on Saturday, the first since the election call, had him ahead by 12.) This in the wake of a 12-month, $32-million barrage of government advertising that might even make that old propagandist Pierre TRUDEAU blush with shame.

There have been conflicting messages in public opinion sampling in recent weeks. Large numbers of Ontarians say they like the direction the government is heading, and even respect Harris. But a larger number are, conflictingly, appalled at the pace of change and what is happening to schools and hospitals after four years of Tory cuts. "We've got a good shot at this," says one cabinet minister. "But I'm worried about the Churchill effect - will people say, 'Thanks for the heavy lifting, but now it's time to move on?' " It's a good question: in the shortest election campaign in provincial history - just over four weeks - can Mike Harris rekindle his tough-love affair with Ontario voters? Ontarians are not the only ones who want to find out.

Ontario is the first of at least five governments that could hold elections this spring - on Saturday the New Brunswick government dropped the writ for a June 7 vote, while premiers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia are testing the waters. All are watching Harris's progress with a mix of fascination and dread. Four years ago, when provincial budgets were massively in the red, only Harris opted to cut the deficit, services and taxes - all at the same time. "I am the tax-cut guy," Harris says, sometimes defiantly, sometimes almost perplexed that the message doesn't automatically sink in. His first round of cuts, a 30-per-cent reduction in the provincial rate of income tax, began with his first budget in the spring of 1996 and provoked other jurisdictions to follow suit to stay competitive. His pre-election budget - take that, front-running Alberta - promised a further 20-per-cent cut over the next four years.

Alberta's Ralph KLEIN has already responded. "I'm not conceding that Ontario will have the lowest taxes in Canada," he said. "We will have to crunch the numbers." Others are almost giving up on the contest. In its own pre-election budget, Manitoba promised just a six-per-cent tax cut by 2000. But, laments Premier Gary FILMON, "I don't think we would be naïve enough to suggest we're going to be competing with the most economically powerful places in Canada." Provinces like Saskatchewan, which closed rural hospitals and stared down a nurses' strike to keep its books in order, are not eager to get into a further tax-cutting war with other jurisdictions. Quebec effected some modest tax cuts in each of its past two budgets - in spite of anger from its highly politicized civil service unions (tax cuts mean less government revenue - and fewer wage concessions). Now, if Harris is re-elected and the new income tax cuts kick in, an Ontario couple with two children earning $60,000 would pay $3,143 less in tax than their Quebec counterpart.

As well as the pledged income tax cut, Harris is also guaranteeing a 20-per-cent reduction in the provincial portion of property tax, a sop to those who have seen those taxes rise substantially because of the province downloading functions to municipalities. He is also promising a $3.8-billion increase in health-care spending and a $10-billion infrastructure program over the next five years. The NDP, by contrast, would reverse the Harris cuts on those earning more than $80,000 a year to pay for its health-care promises. The Liberals pledge not to raise taxes, but they won't cut any more until the deficit is eliminated - and then only after ensuring that the lion's share, at least 75 per cent, of any budgetary surplus goes to buttressing the province's schools and hospitals and paying down the debt. To make their point, the Liberals even ran pre-election ads on television recently showing Harris proudly announcing the new tax cuts, juxtaposed with images of lineups at a hospital emergency ward. The message - that tax cuts compromise health care and access to higher education - is being driven home by NDP and Liberal candidates. "We can be a proud province or we can follow New Jersey," says Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty. "We can choose dignity for our sick or put them on stretchers in emergency room hallways."

The battle lines have been drawn. "This should be a close election, maybe even a nasty one," suggests Environics pollster Jane Armstrong. "As much as anything else, it could be decided on the basis of social class." But commentators note Harris, 54, is blessed with a thriving economy and with little-known opponents in McGuinty, 43, and NDP Leader Howard Hampton, 47. As caricatures go, it is the cagey former golf pro versus the boy scout versus the hockey-playing labour lawyer. But as the campaign buses roll out through the verdant Ontario countryside, it will not be Harris versus McGuinty or Hampton that will be on the minds of many voters. It will be Mike Harris versus himself.

Not since John ROBARTS won re-election in 1967 has an Ontario premier won back-to-back majorities. But, as all Ontario realizes by now, Harris is not someone who backs away from a tussle. In four years in office he has antagonized almost every major interest in the province: civil servants, teachers, hospital workers, environmentalists, those opposed to institutionalized gambling. On the national scene, he has repositioned Ontario as a no-holds-barred combatant with Ottawa on a number of economic and social concerns. No longer striving to be Confederation's broker, he may even be Confederation's lone wolf: his unexpectedly compassionate stand a year ago to compensate all those who contracted hepatitis C through tainted blood presented his fellow premiers with a crisis of conscience and forced them to dig deeper into their own treasuries.

That is what Ontarians are doing, too, on a variety of fronts, trying to plumb their own social conscience and gauge the relative merits of the Harris revolution. Prosperity has returned, the province is leading the nation in economic growth, new cars are flooding the streets, nearly 540,000 new jobs have been created on the Tory watch, and 372,000 people have been weaned off welfare. But putting off eliminating the deficit for tax breaks has seen Ontario's debt rise by $22 billion under the Tories. As a percentage of the economy, government debt is now higher - at 30 per cent - than it was under Bob RAE's high-spending NDP government. Household debt has grown as well. And did tax cuts fuel the economic boom, as Harris argues? Economists quibble, but more jobs were created during the comparable economic boom at the end of the 1980s, when David PETERSON's Liberal government raised taxes.

On the school front, university tuition is up 20 per cent in most institutions, high schools have a new curriculum - the third under three successive governments - and will be condensed into a four-year program, a proposal that goes back to the 1970s. Students will face yearly tests, school boards have been amalgamated, funding has been equalized between the Catholic and public systems, and boards have been told to close schools or sell property if they want to offer more extensive programs. The system has either been reformed, or exhausted. Teachers are working longer hours in the classroom - but stamp clubs, music programs and sports teams in many places have fallen by the wayside.

Health-care spending has increased slightly during the Conservative period but not nearly enough to keep pace with the demands of an aging population. At least $800 million was taken out of the hospital budget during the Tories' first two years, leading to backups in emergency services and lineups for cancer treatment, day surgeries and beds. The richest province, Ontario recently approved a plan to ship cancer patients to the United States to reduce a backlog. But the premier, flush with new federal money after Ottawa's recent budget, also agreed to hire 12,000 new nurses - after at least 3,000 had been laid off only a year earlier with the province picking up a $400-million severance and restructuring tab. Harris had defended the earlier layoffs by comparing the nurses with workers in a Hula Hoop factory whose product had gone out of style.

As former prime minister Brian MULRONEY liked to say, in politics you need your friends, but above all else you need your enemies. Friends were so few in the early days of Harris's leadership - the storied Big Blue Machine of former Conservative premier Bill DAVIS had abandoned Queen's Park for Mulroney's Ottawa - that the Harris Tories resorted once to advertising for supporters in newspaper personals. But Harris always knew who his enemies were - and the baiting continues. In the Tories' campaign platform, "union bosses" are singled out to have their salaries published. Teachers will be made to pass recertification tests every three years. Welfare recipients will be made to undergo mandatory drug tests in order to get treatment and make them job-ready. Even Quebec - forget the cozy dinners Harris, his wife, Janet, Quebec Premier Lucien BOUCHARD and his wife, Audrey Best, have sat down to in recent years - is now in the crosshairs over a cross-border dispute involving construction workers. "This is a government that is more confrontational than we've ever seen in Ontario," observes University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss. "Of course, a lot of people feel this government has picked its enemies well."

The enemies are fighting back. The once-massive protests have abated but the province's three largest teachers' unions have cobbled together a $1-million campaign fund to help defeat the Harris government and are prodding their supporters to vote strategically for Liberal or NDP candidates with the best chance of defeating a Conservative. The teachers and the civil service unions have also created a flying squad of protesters who are determined to disrupt every Harris campaign event they can find out about. Only slightly more subtly, the Toronto board of education announced 10 school closures just two weeks before the election call - putting the blame squarely on the province's controversial funding formula. But having a foil suits the Harris style - even, some of his close associates say, his personality. A resort owner and small-businessman for most of his life, this is a premier who is at his happiest touring someone's factory and sees himself, fundamentally, as being outside the power structure - indeed from another era. In 1995, he staggered the province's opinion makers by promising boot camps for young offenders. This time, as part of his pitch for what he calls "respect and responsibility," he wants the national anthem sung at the beginning of every school day (the Harrises have two sons). Says a top Harris strategist: "We're not the type of folk you find at a Rosedale cocktail party."

Nor is Dalton McGuinty. The Liberal leader is barely known in the province, despite his party's lead in the polls. But neither was Harris until he surged to the top in the final two weeks of the 1995 campaign. An Ottawa criminal lawyer, the 43-year-old McGuinty is married to Terri, his high-school sweetheart, and has four children. He is the eldest son among 10 McGuinty siblings who have made politics a family enterprise. Father, Dalton Sr., taught literature at the University of Ottawa for 30 years, and in the early 1960s was John Turner's riding association president in Ottawa before catching the bug and getting elected as a provincial Liberal in 1987. When he died unexpectedly three years later, young Dalton took over his seat in the 1990 election, and won the leadership as a compromise candidate in December, 1996. "This is the family story," says McGuinty, warming to the telling. "Ten kids, all around the dining-room table. Parents who had lots of ambition for us. A solid work ethic and no money. That was almost enough to find success in Ontario. The two things we needed? Health care and accessible education. Think of this now - we could all afford to go to college or university."

McGuinty's flaw? Even friendly critics say he doesn't look comfortable on the stump. Liberal packagers are frustrated because focus groups keep zeroing in on his narrow shoulders. But in health care, McGuinty may have found his issue. His recurring story is of an 87-year-old man who died in the emergency ward of a Hamilton hospital after 2 ½ days - without a bed being found for him. "This man, he was a grandfather, a father, he had worked all his life, paid his taxes," McGuinty says. "He'd paid for that bed. It should have been there for him." It is the kind of story pollsters are hearing right across the country - and that pops up on the doorstep when Conservative canvassers raise the name Mike Harris. Says a senior McGuinty adviser: "If two weeks into this campaign we're talking about the economy and the benefits of tax cuts then Harris has won. If we're talking health care, then we've got a shot at it."

To have a shot, though, the Liberals have to regain some of their "traditional" seats, and the NDP has to remain at the bottom of the pack, perhaps even below the 20-per-cent minimum they have won in every election since 1971 (in the most recent poll, the NDP stood at nine per cent). NDP Leader Hampton, a fierce debater with a wearying lifestyle (he and his wife, MPP Shelley Martel, have two young children and alternative households among her East Sudbury riding, his in western Rainy River, and Toronto), is offering a bare-bones platform - suitable to the party's ambitions.

But Ontario politics is anything but a placid pool. The past 12 years have seen a majority Liberal government, followed by a majority NDP government, followed by the Harris Tories. In the five elections since 1977, not a single one has followed the pattern of the one before it. In broad terms, Liberals fight New Democrats in the North, the Windsor area, Hamilton, parts of the Niagara Peninsula and downtown Toronto; everywhere else they fight Tories.

Will this be Harris's last election? Senior Tories are circulating that notion. He has been in the legislature since 1981 and will be entitled to a one-time retirement package of nearly $1 million when he does step down, the result of doing away with the old MPP pension plan. Meanwhile, though, there is this campaign to fight. The rhetoric is full of Mulroney-style bombast about taking the tough decisions. "You know," says Tom Long, the cherubic-looking political pit bull who runs the campaign team, "the last election the whole atmosphere was poisonous. Voters wouldn't take yes for an answer. They wouldn't believe anything any politician said. Now, they take us seriously - they know we will do what we say we will do. They know they have to make real choices." That is another Harris legacy - the sense of engagement, of making Ontario a political hot spot.

The Ups and Downs of the Harris Revolution

During their political make-over of Ontario, the Tories have slashed budgets and taxes, consolidated municipalities and school boards, and faced down increasingly hostile opponents. Some highlights:

June 8, 1995: The Conservatives defeat Premier Bob Rae's NDP in the provincial election, getting 45 per cent of the popular vote. The next month, in a sign of things to come, they slash $1.9 billion from such areas as welfare and highway projects.

Nov. 29, 1995: The government's mini-budget cuts $6.2 billion from municipalities, hospitals and schools over three years.

Feb. 26, 1996: As anti-government anger mounts, civil servants begin a five-week strike. The following month, a demonstration marks the opening of the legislature's spring session. On May 7, the Tories bring down their first full budget, featuring a 30-per-cent tax cut to be phased in over three years.

June 22, 1996: Howard Hampton is chosen new leader of the NDP.

Oct. 25, 1996: A fifth Day of Protest, organized by a coalition of labour and social activists, paralyzes Toronto. Earlier protests had hit Peterborough, London, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo.

Dec. 1, 1996: Dalton McGuinty wins the Liberal leadership.

Jan. 15, 1997: The Tories unveil details of their proposal to turn Toronto into a megacity, to generally negative reviews. In a March referendum, 76 per cent of Toronto voters oppose the idea, but the Tories forge ahead with the plan, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 1998.

Nov. 3, 1997: Ontario teachers begin a two-week strike.

March 6, 1998: Trying to avert a public relations disaster, Harris apologizes to the three surviving Dionne quintuplets, nearly destitute, after earlier offering them only $2,000 a month in compensation.

May 5, 1998: The provincial budget completes the full 30-per-cent tax cut six months earlier than expected.

November, 1998: The Tories initiate an election-style advertising campaign attacking McGuinty. They also increase spending on government health and education advertising.

May 4, 1999: The Tories bring down their 1999-2000 budget the day before the election call, promising to cut provincial income tax by a further 20 per cent over the next five years.

Maclean's May 17, 1999