Harris Re-elected

Just past the halfway point in the four-week Ontario election campaign, nastiness was lurking around every corner. Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty accused Premier Mike HARRIS of lying baldly and of pitting Ontarians against each other in a callous bid for votes.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 14, 1999

Harris Re-elected

Just past the halfway point in the four-week Ontario election campaign, nastiness was lurking around every corner. Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty accused Premier Mike HARRIS of lying baldly and of pitting Ontarians against each other in a callous bid for votes. Fighting for his share of the opposition pie, NDP Leader Howard Hampton likened McGuinty to a psychopath in an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. Harris stepped back, like the little boy who lights the firecracker and leaves it for others to toss around. For the next four days he campaigned with one of the goofiest campaign props ever unveiled - a "spendometer," a cardboard box with bells and levers that two young Tories manipulated from inside, purportedly to show the fiscal dangers of opposition promises.

This is a man who likes gimmicks - jars of loonies to represent the tax cuts he has brought in, or dressing up in mechanics' coveralls to mug for the media as the Mr. Fixit of the economy. This is also someone who can be so heavily scripted that he will walk right by a line of casual workers on a factory tour. But in this case the spendometer served another political purpose: it showed a front-runner comfortable enough to chart his own path in the midst of a brutish, mudslinging election campaign. Compare and contrast. While others zigged, he would zag. Catch me, he was saying. Catch him they did not.

Despite a late-day surge from the McGuinty Liberals - one that ripped the heart out of the NDP and left it with a meagre nine seats, its worst drubbing in decades - Harris's Tories achieved a modest miracle last week. For the first time since 1967, a sitting government in Ontario won back-to-back majorities. Toronto, the engine of the Ontario economy, turned its back again on the cost-cutting Tories, electing only eight Conservatives in the city's 22 ridings and collecting two high-profile scalps: Education Minister Dave Johnson and Culture Minister Isabel Bassett, who went down to defeat. But in rural and especially suburban Ontario, the Tories held their own. Overall, they took 45 per cent of the vote, the same as in 1995, and 59 seats in a reduced 103-seat legislature. The Liberals, meanwhile, rebounded from a shaky start under freshman leader McGuinty to win 40 per cent of the vote and 35 seats - enough to keep the party wolves at bay.

The 28-day campaign - and the four preceding years of tax cuts and take-no-prisoners reforms on the health-care and education fronts - took place against the backdrop of a badly polarized Ontario. Former Liberal premier David Peterson saw the election simply as a referendum on Harris, with each opposition party fighting to frame itself as the only alternative. "He's a very dominant personality," Peterson said. "You either like Mike or you don't. He became the issue."

Becoming the issue is something Harris is comfortable with. In his first term, he took on all of the province's sacred cows - closing hospitals, curbing the powers of teachers and public service unions - that previous governments had shied away from. Not a magnetic speaker, his only consistent applause line on the campaign trail was: "You know that when we promise to do something we will do it." And even people deeply uncomfortable with Tory policies seemed to trust Harris. "There was this amazing gap when we went door to door," says Annie Kidder, a Toronto parent who organized a group to fight the Tories' education reforms. "A lot of people would be extremely dissatisfied with what was going on in the education system - yet they were prepared to vote for the government because they liked Harris."

What comes next? At 54, with the heavy reforms from the first term all but over and 18 years in the legislature under his belt, Harris is displaying signs of a restive spirit, someone who would like to move on in two or three years. Business or politics? Some conservatives see Harris as the natural leader of the United Alternative, Reform Leader Preston Manning's vision of a coalition between his party and federal Tories. But UA proponents are bound to be disappointed by Harris's immediate post-election assessment of the possible federal coalition: "Who cares?"

For the moment there is enough on his plate at Queen's Park. He is offering both a "growth agenda," encouraging economic productivity through ever lower taxes and strategic investments, and a "respect and responsibility" platform. It is the respect agenda, borrowed in large measure from south-of-the-border Republicans, that will see Ontario challenging Ottawa over tougher penalties for young offenders and parolees, writing laws to keep squeegee kids off the streets, and requiring welfare recipients to submit to drug tests if they wish to continue their benefits. "We see and hear from parents about a lack of respect and responsibility," Harris, the father of two sons, told Maclean's. "That's a view I share. I see it in the school system and I see it in my own children."

But all that may pale beside the fight over public resources that is bound to dominate the Tories' second term. During the campaign, Harris characterized his Liberal opponent as an unfettered free-spender. But Harris's promises are just as grandiose - if not more so. He intends to boost health-care spending by at least 20 per cent over the next five years. And he has pledged to spend a massive $2 billion a year on infrastructure - everything from new university facilities and hospitals to northern roads - that has all the vested interests gathering at the same watering hole. This with an economy that appears to be slowing, according to government estimates, and a provincial debt load that has spiked upward to $121 billion.

First in line for the available cash are the province's colleges and universities, which have been promised a nearly $750-million capital infusion this year to accommodate children of the baby boomers, who are entering the system in ever greater numbers. "This is the most money we've seen since the 1960s," says University of Toronto president Robert Prichard, who is also the head of the Council of Ontario Universities. But while Prichard applauds the Tories for a change of attitude towards higher education, he also warns that this should be viewed only as a down payment - maybe a third of what will be required over the next five years.

Also in the queue are doctors, who begin negotiations on a new fee schedule this fall. Ontario nurses, in short supply and as angry as their counterparts in other provinces, are making demands as well (the government has pledged to use new federal health money to hire 12,000 new nurses - after laying off at least 3,000 just over a year ago with the province picking up a $400-million severance and restructuring tab). After four years of Tory reforms and cutbacks, hospitals and school boards are clamouring for more funds. "We don't want to look like money pits," says Hilary Short, a vice-president with the Ontario Hospital Association. "But when you take out the onetime investments, the operating grants for this year are less than last year. The numbers in the provincial budget don't really add up in a very encouraging way."

Most commentators described the short campaign as the nastiest in living memory. But, in fact, electioneering largely began last September, when the Tories' campaign team reassembled to find that the party had dipped precipitously in the polls. To stanch backbench anxiety, the Conservatives launched a campaign-style attack on McGuinty in November to see if they could move the numbers. "When the Tories realized Dalton's image was undefined, they thought they could define it before we did," says one Liberal strategist. "And they did."

Still, in April the Liberals were leading the Conservatives by four percentage points, according to the Tories' internal polls. A good-news budget on May 4, the day before the election call, moved the Tories ahead slightly in the first week of the campaign; the numbers remained static until the May 18 leaders' debate, when McGuinty slipped, Hampton moved forward briefly at the Liberals' expense, and Harris settled into the level of support that would propel him to victory. Throughout it all, the Tories moved with a kind of cruel efficiency. Campaign stops and messages were decided months in advance. "Our only objective was to make this campaign about leadership and not about anything else," said one strategist afterwards. "And we did that." Of course, it might not have worked without a leader prepared to gamble on an election call when his own party's polls had him trailing - and who was prepared to brazen it out.

A second straight majority

The Tory vote held in the suburbs and in rural areas.


PC: 59

Liberal: 35

NDP: 9

Other: 0

Percentage of Popular Vote

PC: 45.1%

Liberal: 39.8

NDP: 12.6

Other: 2.5

Maclean's June 14, 1999