Harris Under Siege (Nov97 Updates)

Inside his second-floor corner office at Queen's Park one afternoon last week, it was business as usual for Ontario Premier Mike Harris.

Harris Under Siege (Nov97 Updates)

Inside his second-floor corner office at Queen's Park one afternoon last week, it was business as usual for Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Through the window came the raucous cries of several hundred striking teachers on the front lawn below, protesting against his Conservative government's recent education legislation. Beyond his office door, a beleaguered receptionist politely fielded calls expressing similar sentiments. But the object of those denunciations appeared, apart from a lingering cold, coolly implacable and untroubled by the fuss. "More calls from teachers spontaneously declaring support," Harris joked as he ushered visitors into his office. At the end of a week dominated by the largest teachers' strike in Canadian history, as the two parties tussled daily for the upper hand before the courts and the television cameras, the eventual outcome was one of few results that Harris would predict with any certainty. "I hope they are coming to the tail end of that, because we don't respond to it," Harris said with a nod to the demonstrators outside. "They can't stop change. The status quo is not an option."

Maybe not. But the outcry was a sign that the labor strife - which kept 2.1 million students and 126,000 teachers out of school - has damaged both the government and the teachers and is bound to leave a bitter legacy. With picket-line passions gaining in intensity, the government went to court at week's end seeking an injunction to force the teachers back to work. The issue was not whether the strike was illegal - which it clearly was - but whether it was causing such "irreparable harm" as to justify a back-to-work order. After 15 hours of often-complex arguments, Justice James MacPherson said he would rule on Monday - but he urged the two sides to reopen talks and said he would delay a decision if an agreement seemed possible. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, MacPherson warned, "someone is going to win completely and someone is going to lose completely."

Even as the drama unfolded on the picket lines and in court, a key fact of current Ontario politics asserted itself. No matter what Ontarians may say about their premier - and those opinions are often extreme - no one can accuse Harris of ducking a fight. In the 29 months since his government won office, the premier has taken on almost every established group, overhauling the province's institutional foundation at a pace that has unsettled all but his most ardent supporters. "This," says Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, "is a premier who is not really content unless he is scrapping with someone." Now, the leader of Canada's most populous province finds himself in the biggest and most important political battle of his tenure.

For both short- and long-term reasons, the stakes are enormous. The immediate concern last week was the effect that a prolonged strike would have on students. Then there was the fate of the teachers, who faced either the pressure of staying off the job or submission to a series of changes they say would radically alter their workplace and their bargaining powers. Whatever their decision, tempers were likely to remain high. As Eileen Lennon, president of the Ontario Teachers' Federation, vowed: "As long as Bill 160 is on the table, teachers will be fighting it."

On the government side, the stakes may be even higher. Harris is determined to pare an additional $500 million to $667 million from the education system's $14-billion price tag. And as a former teacher and school board trustee, the premier is firmly resolved to overhaul a system that he depicts as inefficient, outdated - and too decentralized to ensure curriculum quality, smaller classes or value for taxpayer money. The current legislation would remove school boards' rights to negotiate key contract conditions, such as teachers' preparation time. It would also allow the province to use individuals who do not have teaching certificates for certain classes, to expand classroom time and to increase the number of instructional days in the school year. The teachers argue that the government wants to increase their work load because it is determined to save money - at the expense of educational quality.

But the conflict is far more than a traditional tussle for position between the government and one of its employee groups. It is, in fact, the watershed for a party that is already mapping its strategy for an election that is at least two years away. Education reform is the centrepiece of the Tories' elaborate and extremely controversial overhaul of almost every provincial institution. If that key reform falters, the Harris government may imperil its already damaged image as a competent manager. And that could be fatal to its re-election prospects. "For Mike Harris to be re-elected, he needs to show that his party cannot only be an agent of change, but also manage change effectively," says pollster John Wright, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Group Inc. "His party must show some decisive results."

One indication of the priority that Harris attaches to the issue was his cabinet shuffle shortly before the strike, when the premier replaced controversial education minister John Snobelen with Dave Johnson - widely regarded as one of his most trusted and able ministers. More important, Harris has turned the education battle into a personal crusade. In a TV advertisement that aired nightly, and in a provincewide televised address two weeks ago, the premier deliberately took on the teachers, depicting them as a self-interested group that opposes any change in the status quo. "I understand that the job of the teachers' unions is to put their membership first," he said in his speech, "but ours is to put Ontario's kids first."

If his appeal was not working, it was because the Tories made an extraordinary communications gaffe that severely undercut their credibility. Initially, the government insisted that there was no specific target for education spending cuts, hinting that any further reductions were probably unnecessary. But two weeks ago, a leaked draft copy of a "performance contract" for Veronica Lacey, the province's deputy minister of education, revealed that she had been given the goal of cutting $667 million from the province's elementary and secondary schools in 1998-1999. Under pressure, Harris was forced to concede that at least $500 million in cuts were under consideration. Unrepentant, Harris told Maclean's that there is more than enough money in the system: the problem lies in the fact that it is not spent to improve the quality of classroom education. "Many other provinces spending significantly fewer dollars are getting better results: their kids are learning more," he said.

That stand has deeply undermined the government's case. Prior to the strike, pollster Wright discovered that about 70 per cent of Ontarians wanted school reform. Fifty-six per cent, meanwhile, opposed a potential walkout - while 42 per cent favored it. Last week, however, when Wright sampled within Metropolitan Toronto, he discovered that those positions were completely reversed. "This thing has come off the rails for the government over one clear thing: their admission that they are going to cut," says Wright. "While the government won Round 1 in the court of public opinion, it is clear that the teachers have taken Round 2. The focus moved from supporting or opposing the strike to the much deeper heart of the matter: reforming the education system and who will defend it." Or, as New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton told Maclean's: "Forget those attempts at high-minded talk. For the Tories, money is everything."

The irony is that the government was comfortably positioned to face down the teachers before it began to talk of taxpayer savings - if only because of the unions' mistakes. Prior to the strike, the Ontario Teachers' Federation - the umbrella group representing the five teachers' unions - demanded that the government withdraw or drastically alter its legislation. It was easy, notes Wright, "to portray the teachers as intransigent on an issue that people care about very much." Threats by other unions - such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees - to strike in solidarity were then likely to further damage their public image: 60 per cent of respondents agreed with the assertion that "unions have too much power."

Now, the Tories have lost that upper ground - and their bid to frame the faceoff as a battle between the government and the unions, rather than against individual teachers. "If it's the union versus the government, government wins," says Liberal party pollster Michael Marzolini. "But if it's the government versus the teachers, teachers win. Teachers are real people - and governments and unions are institutions. Voters will always sympathize with real people over institutions."

The situation has become so explosive that even many Tories now wonder if the government has finally bitten off more than it can digest in a single mandate. The changes set in motion by the Ontario government have been enormous: the entire institutional fabric of the province has been torn apart and cobbled back together. Over the next two years, 25 out of 210 hospitals, including 11 of 44 in Toronto, will close. The number of municipalities is shrinking from 815 to about 600 - even the City of Toronto is about to be swallowed into a new megacity. The number of school boards is slated to dwindle to 66 from 129.

Those structural changes have been followed by an overhaul of the province's fiscal base. In a dizzying transfer of responsibilities and cash, the province will receive half of the education property tax from municipal tax bills on Jan. 1, 1998 - about $2.5 billion. And it has claimed the right to set that tax rate in future, removing taxation powers from the local boards. In return for relief from their education costs, municipalities will be saddled with the tab for social housing, local public health services, ambulance costs and 20 per cent of the cost of all welfare. (They now pick up one-fifth of the cost of only certain categories of benefits.)

And those are merely some of the highlights of the Tories' institutional revolution - one that has resulted in many worrisome unknowns. How will the province ensure the continued quality of health care as hospitals close? How will the new, larger school boards - and the unions with which they bargain - adjust to their changed, and much-constrained, circumstances? Will municipalities be able to provide the same quality of service - as their responsibilities change - for the same level of taxes? "The government has inflicted enormous upheaval on practically every important sector of Ontario society," notes political consultant Graham Murray, editor of the influential Inside Queen's Park newsletter. "So many points of triangulation have been torn out of Ontario's political landscape."

In the beginning, that was all part of the government's plan: implement wrenching change in as many areas as possible - as fast as possible. Elected in June, 1995, on its Common Sense Revolution platform, the new government cut welfare payments by 20 per cent, watered down or scrapped provisions ranging from labor laws and employment equity to the interim waste disposal authority, introduced the first phases of a planned 30-per-cent reduction in personal income taxes, and pared most programs and public-sector employment. Its method of operation was deceptively simple and highly risky. As John Ibbitson, author of Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution, notes, the premier's staff concluded that "an entrenched interest will accept substantial change as a means to avoid cataclysmic change. Therefore, to obtain substantial change, threaten cataclysm. This approach of starting from an extreme position would become one of the government's favorite tactics."

The sky-is-falling strategy usually worked - as long as the government was implementing the basic planks of its electoral policy. But as one change led to another, the approach faltered: extreme stands provoked angry opposition at a time when the government itself did not understand the full ramifications of its new proposals. As a result, positions polarized. "We have got to reform the public sector to become a viable North American region state," says Queen's University economist Tom Courchene. "But there are process issues here that have really bothered a lot of people. Maybe this is the only way to get this through: do it all at once. Maybe they are just implicitly giving themselves a one-shot mandate."

While wags joke that Harris is keeping promises he didn't even make, in hindsight the Common Sense Revolution was always heading in this direction. In part, his deeds are driven by the need to balance the budget: he wants to cut provincial taxes by 30 per cent by 1999 - and eliminate the deficit in 2000-2001. The fiscal pressures match the premier's ideological determination to pare back government itself. Maclean's, in fact, has learned that he is resisting the arguments of more moderate Tory supporters who maintain that revenues are so high that there is no need to make further cuts. Instead, former Tory campaign chairman Tom Long asserts: "There is a major provision in the Common Sense Revolution that talks about doing better for less. And this government has actually had the courage to begin with deep-seated, fundamental change in the way that it delivers services."

But the greatest reason for change resulted from a basic fact of provincial life: the government could pass legislation but other institutions can get around the need to implement it. The Tories have called for work-for-welfare for able-bodied recipients, for example, but cities have been slow to introduce the necessary job-training or make-work schemes. That realization really hit home, however, in November, 1995, when the provincial government sliced institutional grants, including cuts of $440 million to educational grants. Although hospitals and municipalities absorbed the hit, 78 per cent of the school boards simply hiked taxes to compensate for lost revenue.

The roots of the current educational impasse lie in that decision. The Harris government concluded that the boards could never restrain the demands of the powerful unions: they would target small boards in contract negotiations, resist calls to measure pupils' progress on a provincewide basis, and wring concessions in salary and benefits. In response, the boards would simply hike taxes and increase teacher-to-pupil ratios. Bill 160 represents the Harris government's no-holds-barred counterattack. "We tried to get savings out of what we saw as a pretty bloated bureaucratic system," the premier said, "but they weren't prepared to be part of the solution." Johnson, his education minister, insisted that he was looking for suggestions from the teachers, but "all I have heard is a desire to yank out clauses in the bill."

Tory private polls now indicate, however, that such initiatives - and the resulting denunciations - have shaken the public's confidence in the government. If Harris does bring peace and satisfactory reform to the education sector, the last two years of his mandate must be smoother if he wants to survive the next election. The state of the provincial economy may help: although the overall level of government spending has not declined, as Harris once promised, revenues are booming. Private forecasters predict annual growth rates as high as seven per cent, and the budget may actually balance one year early, in 1999-2000. The premier has transferred his former principal secretary, David Lindsay, to the government-run Ontario Jobs and Investment Board to ensure that his 1995 election promise of 725,000 new private-sector jobs is kept. (So far, only 269,000 have been created - but that includes 216,000 in the past seven months.)

In such circumstances, the premier may be able to argue that all of the pain has been worth the gain. As consultant Murray notes: "We are coming towards the end of this millennium. The predominant view is that this is going to be a fresh start. And that could be played very positively by the government in terms of its efforts to get Ontario ready for the next century by clearing away the old ways of the last century." The premier can only hope that by the time he makes that argument, he can be heard above the din outside his office.

Mike Harris Q & A

Ontario Premier Mike Harris's Conservative government has launched a full-scale reform of the province's education system, calling for standardized report cards, a provincewide curriculum and the right to determine the amount of time that teachers spend in the classroom. He has also called for additional unspecified spending cuts of $500 million. Such changes have provoked fierce debate. Last week, as demonstrators shouted anti-government slogans outside his Queen's Park office, Harris spoke to Maclean's National Affairs Columnist Anthony Wilson-Smith and Contributing Editor Mary Janigan. Excerpts:

Maclean's:

How important is the education issue for your government?

Harris:

This one is very key. We are well on our way to making the changes that investors look for - except in education. Quality of education, the quality of our workforce, the quality of the training programs, has to be the best in the world. It can't be mediocre. And certainly all the evidence that we've been able to gather indicates that we're not keeping up. We're not terrible - but it's not excellent.

Maclean's:

Why not then reinvest the savings from any future cost-cutting back into the education system?

Harris:

Had we inherited balanced books, we might have had the luxury of not having to find savings at the same time as improving quality. What we have found is that throwing more money into the education system has not improved the quality. This system is broken. It's not a matter of money. The presence of all these different partners - the school boards, the unions - has led to far too much bureaucracy, far too much money not being spent in the classroom, far too much money wasted - and that's what we're really trying to change.

If somebody shows me that another billion dollars is what you need to have the best education system in the world, we'll find it. We'll make savings in other areas. But nobody has said lack of money is the problem. And I don't believe it is. I could commit to reinvest, but then I might not be reinvesting in something else and then I'm playing the mug's game of measuring success by how many dollars you spend.

Maclean's:

The Common Sense Revolution has provoked many demonstrations. How do you react?

Harris:

That seems to be the nature of the job in Ontario: if change is being made that takes something away from you, the accepted wisdom has been to scream and yell and blow whistles. Maybe that worked in the past. But we are 100-per-cent convinced the status quo couldn't remain. The Common Sense Revolution put in very specific figures on education cuts - and it said those should not affect the classroom. In our experience, those cuts have affected the classroom because the current system has not allowed us to get at the waste very well. There is no question that very strong provincial unions negotiating with very weak little local boards has led to this situation. The boards had begged us to help them. The teachers' unions have fought the new testing, they fought standardization, they fought the new curriculum changes. None of us are immune from the test of results. Those that say this is about power, there is some truth to that.

Maclean's:

You have said that current report cards don't make sense.

Harris:

I can remember going to see my son's Grade 2 teacher - and the only reason I knew how my kid was doing is that I knew what to ask. You get very little idea how your kid is doing relative to how a similar kid would be doing in another jurisdiction. So standardize the report card. While the unions fight this, many teachers welcome the new standardized report card, the new curriculum, even the testing.

Maclean's:

Did you foresee such broad institutional change before you came to power?

Harris:

Before we were elected, we were criticized for saying things like 'No blade of grass will be untrampled at Queen's Park.' But we knew a lot of things were wrong. It was probably time. Rationalization, fewer politicians - all these things were in the Common Sense Revolution. But the complexity of it was not. We made a fundamental decision that there are a number of these things that all need to be fixed and they're interdependent and interlinked. But it is also a lot of change in a short period of time. There's some uncertainty. Each change, though, is complementary to the other. And each, at the end of the day, in the next couple of years, will work very, very well.

Maclean's:

Can you get re-elected?

Harris:

Fifty-five to 60 per cent of the people are saying: 'We like what you're doing, we think you're on the right track, we understand it needs to be done, please get it done.' Some might say: 'Take your time, make sure you're getting it right, don't make a mistake here, we understand this is broken, make sure that what you're replacing it with is better.' And we want to do this. So if there are any unintended consequences in anything, we will deal with that. The intended consequences are better service at less cost to the taxpayers and a balanced budget, and growth in the private sector. All the intended consequences are coming true.

Maclean's:

What do you tell voters now?

Harris:

A lot of our opponents are trying to create fears, trying to mislead you, trying to upset you. Relax, things are getting better. Your job is more secure today than it was two years ago. A job for your children is far more secure today and it will get even better next year and even better the year after that. We believe that we're giving good government. And I think that good government will be good politics come the next election.

Maclean's November 10, 1997