Twenty years ago today, Ontario voted in one of its most controversial governments.
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Reciting the opening of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” might have surprised some of those attending the victory celebration at Mike Harris’s North Bay campaign headquarters on June 8, 1995. Though the selection was suggested by one of the premier-elect’s aides, it well represented the way Harris and his advisors reshaped the Ontario Progressive Conservatives from the flailing husk of the once-mighty “Big Blue Machine” to a hard-right party whose tight messaging allowed them to walk away with what was supposed to have been an easy victory for Lyn McLeod’s Liberals.
The decision Ontario voters made 20 years ago had significant repercussions, many of which we are still dealing with. The Harris team wasn’t kidding when they talked revolution.
When the writ dropped on April 28, 1995, it was clear that premier Bob Rae’s NDP government was toast. Since its election in 1990, it had endured a recession, the hostility of the business community and press, and its own financial blunders in raising the provincial deficit. The implementation of the “Social Contract” of public-service wage cuts, and the ensuing “Rae Days,” alienated traditional NDP supporters among public sector and labour unions. While Rae himself maintained some respect among the public, his government sank to the bottom of Lake Ontario in opinion polls. The NDP issued few promises during the 1995 campaign, preferring to stand on their record and reputation as a party with a conscience.
As the six-week campaign began, Lyn McLeod’s Liberals were polling at over 50 per cent popularity. The mood soured quickly as McLeod avoided answering any question clearly. As the party leader with the lowest public profile, she barely mingled with the public. As Sun columnist Douglas Fisher pointed out, there may have been an unspoken feeling that voters “simply do not want a woman as premier or prime minister,” regardless of which party they belonged to. “Surely someday this largely unexpressed block or rejection will disappear,” Fisher observed. “But it’s still with us, and one gets the same hesitations and then the faint but clear damning of Lyn McLeod that I’ve heard before regarding Audrey McLaughlin and Kim Campbell, and even back to Sheila Copps and Flora MacDonald when they were would-be leaders of their parties.” Two more decades would pass before Ontarians elected Kathleen Wynne as the province’s first female premier.
But the biggest mistake the Liberals made was making the NDP their main target. It was an easy error to make. The aggressive nature of the Tory platform violated former premier William Davis’s dictum that the key to political success in Ontario was that “bland works.” Good, upstanding Ontarians would never fall prey to the upending of government services and divisive proposals for programs like “workfare,” right?
Yet something was happening to reignite the Tories. When the party collapsed in the late 1980s, much of the old backroom guard moved into the private sector or entered the federal arena. What remained was a membership who hated each other’s guts—as party official Tom Long put it, “they were mindlessly vindictive and spiteful.” In the legislature, Andy Brandt served as “interim leader” for three years. The power vacuum left room for the party to be reshaped by younger radicals who felt the Tories had drifted too far left. Drawing inspiration from neo-conservative movements in Great Britain and the United States, figures like Long, Alister Campbell, Tony Clement, and Leslie Noble gained control of party mechanisms. Harris’s natural conservative inclinations served this group well when he became Tory leader in 1990.
The result of their reimagining of the Progressive Conservative party was unveiled to the public in May 1994: a document titled The Common Sense Revolution (CSR). Released a year before the election, it outlined a program an extensive series of cuts designed to reduce the size of the provincial government and reverse a decade’s worth of income tax increases. Among its key points:
- Chop income tax by 30 per cent over three years.
- Freeze Ontario Hydro rates for five years.
- Cut provincial workforce by 15 per cent.
- Repeal NDP legislation which had banned the use of replacement workers during strikes.
- Reduce number of MPPs from 130 to 99.
- Implement mandatory work or training programs for able-bodied welfare recipients (“workfare”).
- Reform educational system by reducing non-teaching personnel and partially deregulating post-secondary tuition.
- Reduce Workers’ Compensation Board premiums.
- Explore sale of provincial assets like the LCBO and TVOntario.
The document was, as political writer John Ibbitson later noted, “the most ideologically innovative and politically successful political manifesto in Ontario history.” The CSR tapped into deep fears from voters who’d seen their manufacturing jobs wiped out in the wake of the recession and implementation of free trade, and played on rumours of lazy deadbeats cheating the welfare system. It also appealed to those longing for seemingly lost beliefs. “Harris’s appeal to the traditional values of Ontario’s settler culture—self-reliance, low taxes, minimal interference from big-city politicians—struck chords both with the hinterlands and with the edge cities,” Ibbitson noted, “including many of the most recent settlers who had moved to Canada from Asia and elsewhere. Harris had tapped the root values of a culture many more sophisticated critics thought no longer existed.”
Despite some early hiccups, Harris’s plain-talking manner and concrete policy points drew voters, even if they didn’t believe he would implement the CSR. “I’m going to vote Conservative for the first time in my life,” Toronto voter Sharon Grant told the Star. “Harris sounds realistic. I don’t believe he’ll do all of it, but I think he’s working in the right direction.” The party de-emphasized the Progressive Conservative brand, labelling its candidates as part of “the Mike Harris Team.”
Harris gained further traction after the televised leaders debate during week three of the campaign. McLeod’s aggressive tone played well with the media, as she waved the Liberal Red Book (a watered down version of the CSR) in the air, but Harris’s calm, stare-in-the-camera manner appealed to voters. Liberal polling numbers tumbled, and by the end of week four the party was neck-and-neck with the Tories.
By the beginning of June, Toronto’s newspapers made their endorsements. The Star stuck by the Liberals, portraying McLeod as a consensus builder compared to Harris, who the paper had called a “champion of the prejudiced” for his promise to eliminate the NDP’s employment equity policy. The Globe and Mail, after backing the Liberals the previous three campaigns, switched to the Tories, calling his platform “the most optimistic and ambitious vision to the voters” in its attempt to “restore much of the financial and social balance once associated with Ontario on the Canadian scene.” The Sun also returned to the Tories, noting that “they’re finally sounding like real Conservatives.” Columnists at all of the papers tore into each other—among the nastiest was the Globe and Mail’s Terence Corcoran, who aimed his barbs directly at the Star, specifically veteran political analyst/Red Tory Dalton Camp: “The panic on the liberal left is as unseemly a display of self-indulgent condescension as Canada has ever seen.”
As the campaign wound down, both McLeod and Rae tried to up the outrage meter in their attacks on Harris. But their efforts were too late: the final polls showed the Tories with a healthy lead. It seemed more voters didn’t like being told they were mean-spirited if they supported the Tories’ mean-spirited platform. Others who wouldn’t vote for the NDP turned to the Tories as the Liberals strained for credibility. Some in the media were mystified that Harris continued to gain ground after announcing previously-unheard-of-in-Ontario initiatives like boot camps for young offenders. “Sometimes,” Rae noted when asked if the public was voting against the NDP, “the people just decide they want something. And cuts are what they want. But damned if I’m going to be the one who gives it to them.”
The public quickly learned who won on June 8. Within half an hour of polls closing, Harris was declared the winner. With 45 per cent of the vote, the Tories won 82 of 130 seats, the Liberals 30, and the NDP 17. As the Star put it, the campaign “went from coronation to revolution in the space of 40 days.”
Metro Toronto went from predominantly orange to blue, with 16 of 30 seats going to the Tories. Among the NDP incumbents to lose their seats were two current city councillors: Anthony Perruzza (Downsview) and “George” Mammoliti (Yorkview, who vowed that he would be back). Among the new crop of Tory MPPs was Etobicoke-Humber’s Doug Ford Sr., who, after knocking off Liberal incumbent Jim Henderson, promised he would “do all in my power to get the ship’s sail back up and on course again.”
Municipal officials across Metro Toronto worried about their future, as Harris had promised to eliminate at least one level of government—most likely Metro. “It’s a guerilla war out there,” Metro chairman Alan Tonks told the Star. “I think we might be fighting for our lives soon. I’ve seen the enemy and it is us.” North York mayor Mel Lastman was his usual bombastic self. “What is all this stuff?” he asked. “How do you cut someone off welfare? What do you do? Let the kids starve? Take them away from their parents? I’m really scared for people on welfare. There aren’t any jobs around.” Scarborough mayor Frank Faubert observed Harris’s lukewarm attitude toward expanding transit in the region, unlike the NDP’s approval of new subway lines along Eglinton and Sheppard Avenues.
Faubert’s fears were justified, as the Eglinton line was cancelled by the new government. Those who suspected Harris disliked Toronto saw their misgivings confirmed over the next seven years, as the government actually carried out its plan. “Mr. Harris protected his suburban pets from much of his on-the-fly restructuring medicine,” John Barber wrote in the Globe and Mail after Harris announced his retirement in 2001. “But everywhere else in Ontario, town councils, boards of education, hospital boards and dozens of other local agencies and authorities are still gagging. All because Mike Harris hated Toronto and was determined to root the last survivors of the socialist horde out of their urban redoubt.” As Harris predicted, the grass at Queen’s Park was trampled by numerous protests from unions, social activists, and anyone else who disagreed with his government’s direction.
Twenty years on from Mike Harris’s victory, we live with the after-effects. Members of the Tory government like John Baird, Tony Clement, and Jim Flaherty—all part of the rookie class of 1995—moved on to key roles in Ottawa under Stephen Harper. The forced amalgamations didn’t bring the promised savings, while downloading of elements like social services and public transit produced backlogs and set back the proper growth of urban infrastructure. Educational restructuring created the mess that is the Toronto District School Board. Bitterness lingers in some circles over the creation of the current City of Toronto.
But one of the most damaging legacies, as far as Toronto is concerned, is how the Harris team brought the politics of division out into the open and made them palatable to politicians and voters. City councillors have built careers on playing off the urban/suburban divide and the underprivileged, creating conflicts where they needn’t exist. The rage of fearful voters more concerned about preserving their lifestyle over the greater good, and doing so via minimal taxation, informs our civic debates. The concept of “common sense” or appealing to the lowest common denominator is still more respected in some spheres than careful consideration.
In the end, the road less travelled by which Harris took became a congested highway riddled with road rage.
Additional material from Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution by John Ibbitson (Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1997); the May 24, 1994, June 1, 1995, June 6, 1995, and October 17, 2001 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 2, 1995, June 3, 1995, June 7, 1995, June 9, 1995, and June 10, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 28, 1995, June 2, 1995, and June 9, 1995 editions of the Toronto Sun.