For almost a year, I carried Premier Mike Harris’s $200 tax cut in my wallet. Its edges frayed and the ink began to smudge. I looked at it from time to time, then put it away.
Refuse to cash it — what does that prove? The money had already been taken out of public accounting. It’s not like my uncashed cheque was going to go to a high school teacher’s salary or to a homeless shelter. Many people, confronting this dilemma, gave their tax cuts to charity, trying to plug some of the gaping holes in the social fabric left by Mr. Harris’s cuts.
But I decided to be more proactive: I gave the money to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the most committed Harris haters this province has to offer. So there was a certain poetic justice to yesterday’s news: a militant anti-Harris demonstration, organized by OCAP, turned into a street celebration of Mr. Harris’s resignation. Victories are rare these days, they must be savoured.
I know, I know: Mike Harris wasn’t forced out, certainly not by OCAP. He chose to spend more time with his family. And yet there is no denying that he leaves at precisely the moment when his political career is on trial. It’s more than the sinking polls. It’s more than the mounting evidence of his involvement in the police shooting of Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park. And it’s more than the embarrassment of having to testify about whether his government’s policies contributed to the deaths in Walkerton.
What is increasingly on trial is the blind faith that underpinned the Common Sense Revolution. With health scares spreading, borders closing, and a U.S. recession deepening, what looked like common sense now looks plain reckless.
Mike Harris came to power not with a platform so much as a doctrine, a hermetically sealed belief system about how economies work. He believed that he could make Ontario a Club Med-style dream vacation for foreign investors: handing out tax cuts, gutting labour laws, eroding rent control, golf courses downtown. Some regulations were dismantled; some ministries were simply cut back so dramatically that regulators could no longer do their jobs. To Harris, it was common sense that the public sphere was inefficient and bad for business, so school boards, hospitals, and municipalities were slashed and merged as if they were private companies and he was an godlike management consultant.
He did this because he believed that what was good for investors would be good everyone — eventually. So religiously did Mr. Harris pursue his agenda, that he came to see evidence that it wasn’t working as an unwelcome interruption. His casualties were quickly reconstituted as security issues — panhandling or squeegee problems to be cleaned up with tough new legislation — breeding precisely the kind of angry militancy we saw at yesterday’s OCAP demo.
Like all fanatics, Mr. Harris was so in love with his belief that he treated his constituents as distractions. Tuning out these “special interests” — teachers, nurses, students — was a testament to his faith. No wonder the only consensus about him is that he kept his promises.
The question, as Mr. Harris departs, is: Was he right? Ontario under Harris was good for investors, but was it good for everyone?
During the economic boom, and before September 11, the answer very much depended on your perspective. Many enjoyed tremendous wealth, there were signs of growth all around. The crumbling infrastructure, the over-stressed health care, the uncollected garbage, the people on the streets, seemed, to many, to be a price worth paying for prosperity. The Globe’s John Ibbitson says it is “foolish and unfair” to dwell on Mr. Harris’s messy recent past, that we should instead concentrate on happier times for the departing premier. But now is precisely the time to measure the Harris legacy. Our crumbling public infrastructure seems much more menacing with fears of bioterrorism all around. Our emergency rooms can’t handle flu season — can they handle the worst case scenario?
In other words, if we’ve just been through the best of times, what’s in store for the worst? When the economy was soaring, it was only the people who fell through the cracks who found out that the safety net really was gone.In the coming months, many more may find out exactly what Mr. Harris has traded away to make Ontario such a relaxing place for doing business.
Mike Harris isn’t sticking around to find out if his policies are about to send this province into a true crisis. I’m sure, to him, that seems like common sense.