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And then there was common sense
by Michael Taube

After being elected in June 1995, Mike Harris and the Ontario Tories promised a common sense revolution based on solid economic principles and fiscal cost-cutting measures. You could almost hear the trembling of the masses; this was no longer the feel-good era of Bill Davis and his Big Blue Machine. Rather, it was going to be a period in which belts would have to be tightened, unions would have to fear for their existence, and the right-wing conservative movement would finally take control.

But has the common sense revolution prevailed? Do actions speak louder than words? Or will right-wingers have to wait for another conservative messiah to take a poke at?

For some of these answers, a good place to start is Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution. Written by Southam News correspondent John Ibbitson, the book is an excellent account of how the Tory dynasty was rebuilt and restructured in Ontario after its forty-two-year reign ended in 1985. It includes details about the Tory war room, how certain MPPs have acted under pressure, and the creation of the political document called The Common Sense Revolution.

Not surprisingly, Mike Harris is the central figure in this story. He first achieved success in politics in 1974 as a candidate for trustee for the Nipissing Board of Education. By 1980, he had risen to the post of president of the Northern Ontario Trustees Association. Harris then ran for the Ontario Legislature as a Tory in North Bay in 1981, a risky venture considering that the riding had been Liberal for almost twenty-one years. Yet Harris beat the odds and won the seat.

From 1981 until 1990, Harris was never a popular choice for a senior cabinet post. He represented the conservative wing of the party at a time when Red Toryism was all the rage. As noted by Ibbitson, Harris's "conservatism didn't spring from any deep analysis of society, from any coherent political philosophy." Rather, it was based on natural instincts. But in an era controlled by such left-leaning Tories as Bill Davis and Larry Grossman, there was little that Harris could do. So he waited.

Ibbitson points out that the first part of the revolution was already well underway within the Tory youth ranks by the early 1980s. Led by people such as Tom Long, Alister Campbell, Lesley Noble, and future MPP Tony Clement, the so-called "neoconservatives" began to challenge the traditional Tory positions of Davis, Hugh Segal, and Norman Atkins. They wanted to see a leader who would follow the principles of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, bring fiscal policies to Ontario, and change the nature of modern conservatism.

In fact, Harris eventually won the party leadership in 1990 over the Tory establishment candidate, Dianne Cunningham, thanks in large part to the efforts of the youth wing. His home-grown conservatism was different from her studied, intellectual conservatism, but the two groups meshed very well against their political opponents.

As Ibbitson shows in Promised Land, the revolution began to blossom during the reign of Bob Rae and the NDP. The Tories were continually incensed by increases in social spending and taxes, and by the doubling of the provincial debt. And the loudest to protest was Harris, who felt that middle-class voters wanted tax relief and fiscal management.

Thus was born The Common Sense Revolution, a small manifesto that guided the Tories in the 1995 provincial election. This document outlined a ten-point plan to get Ontario back on track. The CSR went through thirteen drafts before its final version, and used economic models such as supply-side economics with a dash of political populism.

And how did this small-government, tax-cutting, U.S.-style, right-wing common sense revolution pan out? At the ballot box, brilliantly. As Promised Land shows, not only were provincial and federal Tories happy to vote for Harris, but so were many federal Reform Party supporters, and members of various ethnic and religious groups. Ibbitson accurately points out that "[r]ace was not a determinant in voting patterns in the 1995 elections. Affluence was." This grand coalition, coupled with the support of the Ontario business community, gave Harris a strong mandate in June 1995.

Since being elected to office, the Tories have had to deal with the cardinal rule that faces all governments: it's easier to be in opposition than in charge. Some unions and special interest groups, for example, critical of any action Harris decides to take on political or economic issues, have vigorously revolted against Tory initiatives like Bill 103 (the Toronto megacity bill) and Bill 26 (the infamous omnibus bill).

In all, Ibbitson has given solid proof that it is hard for a right-wing party to lead a common sense revolution in Ontario. Government is still too big, massive privatization still has not occurred, and the bureaucracy is still displeased.

Promised Land also gives blow-by-blow accounts of how the Tories have won some political battles against groups like OPSEU and local citizens' outfits led by left-wing figures, such as former Toronto mayor John Sewell. Victories can be achieved, but seemingly only in small doses and after long struggles.

As for the revolution? Ibbitson leaves it open-ended, stating that if the party were to get too comfortable as an "establishment government", it could alienate its many ideologues and supporters. However, if the Tories continue with the revolution, "they must pursue it to its logical conclusion", and that could mean an ideological turn "with a more sensible agenda and a more sensitive approach." Ibbiston is right; either path could be a difficult one to cross.

Overall, Promised Land gives a fair and even-handed account of the Harris revolution to date. The story of this government is hardly over, and its place in history is not set in stone. But one thing is certain-whatever the conclusion, the political career of this once little-known North Bay MPP will be discussed for years to come. 

Michael Taube is a right-wing political analyst and former columnist for The Toronto Star. He is also a member of the editorial board of The Canadian Conservative Forum. His work has appeared in major publications across Canada and the United States.


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