It took a disaster for Doug Ford to abandon Mike Harris’s destructive legacy

Posted on June 27, 2020 in Governance History

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Opinion

Mike Harris became premier 25 years ago this week.

Many voters weren’t yet born. Many memories will have faded. I was out of the country during his nearly eight years in power.

But it is impossible to follow provincial politics today without fathoming the ghost of Ontario’s 22nd premier, still looming over Ontario — from devastating death tolls to controversial road tolls.

Nursing homes rules were watered down. Water inspections were diluted, setting the stage for Walkerton. Highway 407 was sold for a song to private owners, who promptly reaped windfall profits from blindsided motorists. A fetish for law and order led to a deadly police confrontation with Indigenous protestors at Ipperwash.

That is the reality of history. And then there is the perception and recollection of the Harris mindset in the present day with the current premier — and those who came in between.

Doug Ford is marking an anniversary of his own this week — two years since he was sworn in as Ontario’s 26th premier. Ford is the first Progressive Conservative to win an election since Harris won re-election in 1999, and he is every bit as populist a politician.

But Ford (whose father Douglas served under Harris as a backbencher from 1995 to 1999) is hardly the only premier to fall under his influence. Everyone who has entered the premier’s office since has been constrained by the “Common Sense Revolution” that Harris sold to voters back then.

Even as Harris faded from public life in 2002 to make big money in big business — chairing the board of the Magna auto parts giant and also Chartwell Retirement Residences (which runs the nursing homes he reconfigured while in power) — he reshaped the business of politics. Borrowing bits of Reaganism and importing elements of Thatcherism, he cobbled together his famous blueprint for power, the Common Sense Revolution.

An echo of the Boston Tea Party that inspired the American Revolution, it also presaged the Tea Party politics in the U.S. today, in which every insurgent is a tax fighter. It wasn’t so much a call to revolution as a cry for demolition and disruption.

You don’t have to reread the document to understand its underlying ethos. Never mind the rhetoric about cutting red tape, slashing taxes, unplugging photo radar, downsizing government and downloading welfare, its underpinning is simply this:

Politics shall henceforth be transactional. Not transformational.

Ask not what you can do for your country or province. Ask what your government can do for you to keep more money in your pocket (or line the pockets of savvy 407 investors).

Central to the Harris ethos: the 1999 Taxpayer Protection Act that tried to handcuff future governments by requiring a binding referendum for any tax hikes.

This new antediluvian, anti-tax ideology soon infected Liberal opposition leader Dalton McGuinty, who signed a public pledge for the right-wing Canadian Taxpayers Federation foreswearing future increases. When he won power in 2003 — and took stock of a hidden $5-billion deficit concealed by the Tories in that year’s election — McGuinty had to reverse himself by increasing OHIP premiums (a tax by another name).

During his decade in power, McGuinty dreaded any increases and found ways to lower taxes — setting the stage for confrontation with unions when he imposed wage restraints. When Kathleen Wynne took over as premier, she too eschewed tax hikes and pushed for a balanced budget, mindful of the anti-tax legacy bequeathed to her by predecessors both Liberal and PC.

The opposition PC leader of the day, Tim Hudak, goaded them to lower taxes even more, and demanded they sell off the remnants of Ontario Hydro split up in the Harris years. Wynne partially privatized Hydro One, the transmission arm of the original electricity utility (while retaining Ontario Power Generation).

During the last PC leadership race, Ford and his rivals dutifully showed up for the same anti-tax photo-op that McGuinty had foolishly signed on to years before. From Harris through Ford, Tories and Liberals went along with the idea that less taxation and less government leads to better government.

The Walkerton scandal — which left seven people dead and 2,500 sick — was a wake-up call for Ontarians that core government services aren’t frills if they save lives. Pre-election tax cuts, bankrolled by a fire sale of the 407, won’t save Ontarians money if they have to pay through the nose for years to come.

Over time, the Common Sense Revolution didn’t make much sense to Ontarians. But even after Harris was long gone, his ghost lived on.

Only now, in mid-pandemic, has Ford’s government undertaken a course correction. Today’s Tories are spending their way out of an economic emergency. They have ditched any talk of eliminating the deficit or paying down the debt. After first reducing regulations — and regular annual inspections — Ford has vowed to step up comprehensive assessments of nursing homes.

If he didn’t reverse himself, Ford would be history today. In truth, neither he nor Harris could get elected on a Common Sense Revolution if an election were held tomorrow.

But it took the COVID-19 crisis to truly unravel that revolution — at least for now.

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One Response to “It took a disaster for Doug Ford to abandon Mike Harris’s destructive legacy”

  1. Maria Mendes says:

    My mother resides in long-term-care. When covid hit Doug Ford stood up every day for 3 months, said that long-term-care is broken, and he would fix it.
    One of the cost saving practices initiated by Mike Harris was changing from well paid full time positions to low paid, no benefit employees. The only way to do this was to make them part time. This meant employees needed to work in as many as 3 locations to earn a living.
    When covid hit hard in long-term-care Ford mandated that employees work only in one location to mitigate the spread. He again reiterated that he would fix these deficiencies in long-term-care for good.
    Well, last week Doug Ford happily announced the partial reopening of long-term-care for outside family visits.
    What he conveniently neglected to point out is that he is again allowing the practise of letting employees work in several locations.
    It is a fact that one of the main reasons for the devastating spread and many deaths in long-term-care is that very practice.
    Let us all be aware that if this results in another massive outbreak of covid amoung our vulnerable loved ones, it will be due to the irresponsible and incompetent behaviour of the Doug Ford government. How many lives must be lost for him to finally stop giving in to the profiteers from long-term-care management companies.


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