Back in the 1995, Ontario found itself in much the same mess as we’re faced with in 2014: bloated, ineffective government; unhealthily high trade union influence on government policy; structural (that is to say, permanent) budget deficits; and an over-dependence on federal transfer payments—though we had not yet become a “have not” province.
Fortunately, however, as we are now, we were facing a June general election that would change all that.
In June 1995, we chose the Progressive Conservatives led by Mike Harris and ushered in the golden years of modern Ontario.
Yes, there are those deluded progressives who defend and justify the McGuinty-Wynne scandal dogged government and who like to recall a Mike Harris era filled with dark days of labour strife and ruthless cuts to education and health care. Revisionist history, of course, but one Grits and Dippers continue to spout so as to scare Ontarians into voting for more of the same.
Readers will recall Progressive Conservative 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 rule—eerily alike our current plight.
The PCs immediately set about implementing their election promises as had been outlined in the “Common Sense Revolution” platform: working for welfare, scrapping affirmative action and cutting taxes to promote more employment. In other words, common sense.
The “Common Sense Revolution” was a timely agenda considering that the provincial deficit had reached a record $10-billion under then NDP premier, Bob Rae, who seemed to lack any believable plan to forestall the province’s economic free-fall.
Unlike McGuinty-Wynne’s Grits, Harris’s PCs could be counted on to fulfill their election promises—no hidden agenda for them. They focused on tax reduction, balancing the budget and reducing the size and role of government. Moreover, they emphasized individual economic responsibility, significantly reducing government hand-outs.
We’re almost 20 years on, and the Harris agenda sounds fresh and reasoned and as relevant now as it was in 1995 when the PCs won almost 45 per cent of the popular vote and 82 seats in the legislature. (Back then, Ontario’s legislature had 130 seats—it now has 107.)
Opponents of the Harris government—trade unionists in particular—really like to dwell on the cuts made to health care and education and the downloading of certain provincial costs to municipalities. They disingenuously ignore, though, the role the Chrétien-Martin federal government had played.
In the process of balancing the federal budget, then finance minister Paul Martin made deep cuts—tens of billions of dollars worth—to provincial transfers. Those cuts, though essential at that time, had a dramatic effect on Ontario’s already strained finances.
Consider, for instance, that the province once relied on federal transfers for about 40 per cent of its health care budget. So, yes, Harris made cuts. And, yes, nurses were laid off—a mistake openly acknowledged and for the most part corrected later in his term. All told, Harris actually increased Ontario’s health spending to record levels—he had to in order to offset cuts by the federal Liberal government.
The PCs also took on teachers and their unions by insisting on badly needed reforms. The unions balked, of course, at anything and everything the government did that wasn’t specifically of benefit the teachers’ pocketbooks or work-hours or otherwise agreeable to their arrogant, confrontational union leaders.
PCs had been democratically elected and had received a mandate directly from the voters. The unions, though, didn’t care about any of that. Instead, they engaged in work stoppages, public protests and, at least, one riot on the grounds of the Ontario Legislature, a protest that stands out as one of the most shameful attacks on our democracy.
This union-government confrontation came to a head in 1997 when teachers walked out on our kids in an illegal strike that PCs roundly condemned and to which they refused to knuckle under. PCs held fast, though, refusing to cave in to the demands of greedy teachers. (A lesson Kathleen Wynne could well heed.)
Under the PCs, economic indicators in Ontario—for the first time in years—improved dramatically. During their first term, Ontario’s economy expanded faster than almost all other North American jurisdictions. Notably, such has not been the case under a Liberal or NDP government in Ontario in well over a half century.
Mike Harris’s premiership was a time of prudent management during which the record high deficit run up by Bob Rae’s reckless NDP government was eliminated even with a lowering of taxes. Moreover, Mike Harris so thoroughly proved himself to be an effective economic manager that Ontario’s voters gave him a second majority term.
Those were golden years indeed, not the dark days we hear about from Grits and Dippers. It’s now almost 20 years later and we are again facing a June general election in which we have a choice.
Option a: choose more of the high-tax, high-debt, low economic performance of the Liberals and New Democrats, a.k.a., tight job market and, basically, more of the same.
Option b: choose Tim Hudak’s version of an economically strong Ontario with a government sized appropriately for our needs and means, a.k.a. a return to the days of responsible government, of jobs and prosperity that result from prudent fiscal management.
I’m for option b. I want to see political power wrested from the hands of union bosses and returned to elected representatives where it properly belongs in our democracy. I want a government of and for the people and not one that’s virtually the creature of public service unions.
Over to you Tim Hudak.