As I consider the mess in which Ontario now finds itself—bloated, ineffective government; out-of-control deficits; dependant on federal hand-outs—I find it somewhat comforting to recall the, by comparison, golden years Ontario enjoyed under then Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris.
Those deluded progressives who defend and justify Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government record like to remind Ontario residents of the Mike Harris era. But, to hear them tell it, those were dark days filled with labour strife and cuts to the education and health care sectors.
Revisionist history, folks.
Mike Harris’s terms ran from June 26, 1995 to April 15, 2002. He assumed power after 10 years of inept, ruinous Liberal and New Democrat government rule—similar to the predicament in which we now find ourselves.
The Harris government immediately set about implementing its election promises: a much needed agenda considering that the provincial deficit had reached a record $10-billion under the now-Liberal but then NDP, Bob Rae. Unlike most, the Harris government could be counted on to fulfill its promises—not something of which any thoughtful person could accuse the Dalton McGuinty Liberals.
Harris’s promises had been outlined in “Common Sense Revolution” platform—no hidden agenda from him. It focused on tax reduction, balancing the budget, reducing the size and role of government, and emphasized individual economic responsibility thereby significantly reducing government hand-outs. An agenda that even a decade later sounds fresh and reasoned, not to mention it remains as relevant now as it was then.
The Tory political ads back then spoke in terms of working for welfare, scrapping affirmative action and cutting taxes to promote more employment. In other words, common sense. And the public loved it, giving Harris and his PC team a solid majority government in 1995, with the PCs taking 82 of 130 legislative seats at Queen’s Park.
Opponents of the Harris government like to dwell on the cuts they claim were made to health care and education and the downloading of certain provincial costs to municipalities. But they disingenuously ignore the roll Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government had played in Ottawa.
Chrétien along with then finance minister Paul Martin had launched a program of deep cuts—tens of billions of dollars worth—to provincial transfers after winning the federal election in 1993. Those cuts, though necessary, were having a dramatic effect on Ontario’s already strained finances, especially since the province had traditionally relied on federal transfers for a substantial portion (about 40 per cent) of its health care budget.
So, yes, there were cuts under Harris’s government—much needed cuts. And, yes, nurses were laid off, a mistake openly acknowledged and for the most part corrected later in his term. The Harris government actually increased Ontario’s health spending to record levels to offset transfer cuts from the federal Liberal government.
The Harris government also took on the teachers’ unions by insisting on badly needed reforms. The unions balked, of course, at anything and everything the government did that weren’t designed specifically to benefit the teachers themselves or their arrogant, confrontational trade unions. But the Harris government held fast, refusing to cave in to the demands of greedy teachers. (A lesson Dalton McGuinty could well heed.)
This confrontation came to a head in 1997 when Ontario’s teachers walked out on our kids in an illegal strike that the Harris government roundly condemned and to which it refused to knuckle under. The government prevailed, and, in the end, the teachers got little in the way of significant changes to government policies.
The Harris PCs had won a legal, democratic election and had received a major mandate from the voters of the province. The unions, though, weren’t having any of that. They participated in work stoppages and several large protests—some near-riots—on the grounds of the Ontario Legislature. Those demonstrations stand out as some of the most shameful attacks ever on Ontario’s democratic political system.
Under the Harris government, economic indicators in Ontario—for the first time in years—improved dramatically. During its first term, Ontario’s economy expanded faster than almost all other North American jurisdictions. Notably, such has not been the case under any Liberal or New Democrat government in Ontario in over a half century.
During his premiership, Mike Harris was able to manage prudently enough to eliminate the record high deficit run up by Bob Rae’s reckless NDP government. Moreover, Mike Harris so thoroughly proved himself to be an effective economic manager that Ontario’s voters gave him a second majority government.
Those were golden years indeed, not the dark days we hear about from progressives.
Oh, how I yearn for the return of those good old days. Over to you Tim Hudak.