New Books

The (Un)Remarkable Common Sense Revolution of Mike Harris

Sam Routley
November 22, 2023
To his fans, former Ontario premier Mike Harris is a conservative icon, a leader who cut taxes, reduced government spending, made sensible education and welfare reforms and put Canada’s biggest province back on the road to prosperity. To his enemies he was a ruthless ideologue whose “Common Sense Revolution” ignored the weak and punished the poor. A new book of essays by seasoned political campaigners and prominent policy experts re-examines this polarizing figure and finds both strengths and weaknesses. Harris’ success on the big issues of the day, finds reviewer Sam Routley, shows that when it comes to actually governing a democracy, what matters most is a clear-headed willingness to just get things done.
New Books

The (Un)Remarkable Common Sense Revolution of Mike Harris

Sam Routley
November 22, 2023
To his fans, former Ontario premier Mike Harris is a conservative icon, a leader who cut taxes, reduced government spending, made sensible education and welfare reforms and put Canada’s biggest province back on the road to prosperity. To his enemies he was a ruthless ideologue whose “Common Sense Revolution” ignored the weak and punished the poor. A new book of essays by seasoned political campaigners and prominent policy experts re-examines this polarizing figure and finds both strengths and weaknesses. Harris’ success on the big issues of the day, finds reviewer Sam Routley, shows that when it comes to actually governing a democracy, what matters most is a clear-headed willingness to just get things done.
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The “Common Sense Revolution” of Mike Harris, Premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2002, is a recurring motif in Canadian politics, particularly when evaluating the successes, limitations and, to many, inherent problems of conservatism in Canada. The Harris years are commonly seen as a stark exception to Ontario’s reputedly moderate, gradual and unexciting approach to government. Harris’ government was, in this view, not only a break from immediately preceding NDP and Liberal governments but a pushback against the Red Toryism of previous premiers Leslie Frost, John Robarts and Bill Davis, in which a new leadership hell-bent on pursuing a transformative “neoliberal” vision ushered in a polarizing and controversial era.

Over 20 years later, Harris’ time in office continues to be invoked by political competitors, and still acts as an effective gauge of the emotions and predispositions of many voters. Many conservatives view it as a case to emulate, an inspiring example of both the popularity and transformational impact a principled and unapologetic conservatism can have. One example is how today’s federal Conservatives have begun to describe their vision as a “common sense” one. To opponents, the Common Sense Revolution was neoliberalism at its coldest: a series of ruthless spending cuts, privatization, attacks on labour and, perhaps worst, social Darwinism. To them, Harris is the premier of the Walkerton tainted water tragedy, the police shooting of an Indigenous protester at Ipperwash, and families that lost needed social assistance. Liberals and New Democrats alike depict these as the sorts of things that will happen again if Conservatives regain office.

This superficial memory – caricature, really – has been sustained by the relatively meagre amount of serious written work produced on the Harris government. Aside from shallow political sniping on the one hand and narrowly focused academic public policy papers on the other, it has been well over a decade since the last comprehensive and critical account (John Ibbitson’s fine Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution, dates all the way back to 1997).

Two extremes: To supporters, Ontario Premier Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” was a clear, pragmatic effort to restore economic prosperity; to his foes it was neoliberalism at its coldest – ruthless spending cuts, privatization and attacks on labour. Shown at top, Harris meets supporters during his winning 1995 election campaign; at bottom, anti-Harris protesters confront police and security during the 1999 re-election campaign. (Sources of photos: (top) Toronto Star Photograph Archive; (bottom) CP Photo/Rene Johnston)

The contributors to The Harris Legacy: Reflections on a Transformational Premier (Sutherland House, 460 pages) and its editor Alister Campbell have made a commendable effort to fill this gap. Rather than focusing on partisan politics, personalities or narrative history, the book, officially launching on December 5, concerns itself with providing detailed public policy analysis and is organized as such. Its 16 chapters evaluate the Harris government’s economic impacts, fiscal policy, healthcare, education, welfare reform, Ipperwash, municipal reform, labour relations, energy, environment, democratic reform, intergovernmental relations and electoral performance.

The Harris Legacy assembles an impressive lineup of academic, bureaucratic, journalistic and political voices. No two chapters really read the same and each writer proceeds from their own experiences, preoccupations and skillsets. This enriches the book. While the more academic writers provide well-grounded analyses of policy results, those with more direct political experience give due deference to the art of the possible. The work of Will Falk (Healthcare), Willliam Robson (Education), Howard Levitt (Labour Relations) and Gordon Miller (Environment) comes across as the most technocratic, providing more detached, dense and often dry examinations of the policies themselves. Sean Speer (Welfare), Ginny Roth (Municipal Reform), Guy Giorno (Democratic Reform) and Will Stewart (Energy) employ more narrative formats to portray the political actors: what they did, why they did it and what impact (if any) they had.

In a new collection of essays edited by Alister Campbell (left), seasoned political campaigners and prominent policy experts re-examine Harris, his ideas and his record. (Source of left photo: David McCammon, retrieved from finaeo)

Financial Post columnist Terence Corcoran and prominent economist Jack Mintz’s chapter on fiscal policy is perhaps the most argumentative. It portrays Harris favourably while issuing a more general defence of privatization and other neoliberal fiscal polices against standard criticisms. This view has profound political implications: Harris is thus absolved from responsibility in the Walkerton water contamination case and made the right decision in the controversial sale of Ontario Highway 407, which in 1997 became the world’s first fully electronic, open-access toll highway (and was expanded into the current 407ETR). Today, Corcoran and Mintz assert, “Canada and the world desperately need a new revolution of common economic sense based on a renewal of core neoliberal economic values.” Plus new leadership; “Friedman and Hayek,” they note, “are dead.”

The Harris Legacy has some important limitations, however. First, the contributors are mostly predisposed to be supportive. Editor Campbell (who wrote the Introduction and Chapter 1), Jamie Watt (Chapter 16), Giorno (Chapter 12) and Stewart (Chapter 10) all worked as partisan staffers in the Harris government. Speer (Chapter 6), Roth (Chapter 8) and the late Hugh Segal (Chapter 14) served other Conservative leaders. David Frum (Foreword) and Corcoran (Chapter 3) are unabashedly right-leaning journalists. Falk (Chapter 4), Levitt (Chapter 9) and especially David Herle (Chapter 16) provide more progressive voices, but are in the minority. There is no representative of Harris opponents: no former labour leader, left-leaning journalist, critical academic, teacher or disaffected bureaucrat. Left-leaning readers are likely to find this mix of coverage unsatisfactory.

Second, the book omits some important policies. Transportation doesn’t get its own chapter, so there’s little insight into the Harris government’s approach to the development of infrastructure necessary for a growing population and economy. It has little to say about the Greater Toronto Area’s challenges with transportation, nor the ongoing friction between those who favour highways and those who favour public transportation. It makes no mention of the government’s cancellation of the Eglinton subway line which – given the street’s continuing transportation woes – is arguably a sizable part of Harris’ legacy. Depending on their particular interests, readers will spot additional gaps: legislative procedure, Northern and rural Ontario, agriculture, francophone affairs, the status of women. Still, the book considers the large majority of the Ontario government’s more important and substantial policy areas, making it a highly valuable addition to the public conversation.

Tainted legacy: Critics contend that privatized water testing contributed to the Walkerton tragedy, an E. coli outbreak from contaminated water that killed seven people and sickened 2,000; the true cause of the disaster, however, was local mismanagement for which Ontario utilities manager Stan Koebel (right, bottom) and his brother Frank Koebel (left, bottom) were charged with breach of trust. (Sources of photos: (top) The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette; (bottom) CP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

Despite important disagreements between contributors, The Harris Legacy is an undeniably pro-Harris book. Beginning with Campbell’s introductory chapter, all authors contribute to the overarching argument that Harris was a successful, transformative and good premier with an enduring impact on his province. Frum, for example, sees the Harris years as “a better resource for a happy future…a record to study, critique, emulate, and improve.”

This was, in the authors’ view, a government that came to power with a clear, well-articulated and evocative policy agenda – the Common Sense Revolution policy manual – and largely accomplished its main policy goals of fiscal restraint, decreasing the size of often-unaccountable government, encouraging personal responsibility and enabling economic growth. It was furthermore a government willing to take decisive and pragmatic action, reworking the main administrative apparatus of several policy areas. In contrast to popular perception, the authors of the chapters on education, healthcare, labour reform and the environment all conclude that the Harris record is a good one.

Crucially, as Campbell notes, many of these key decisions remain in effect today, even after the 15 years of Liberal rule preceding the election of Doug Ford’s Conservatives in 2018:

“The City of Toronto was not unmerged. Closed hospitals were not reopened. Province-wide negotiation authority for teaching contracts was not handed back to the eighty-four Boards of Education. The old monolith of Ontario Hydro was not reconstituted. The coal-burning power plants [Harris] began to close have not reopened. The massive expansion of Ontario parkland was not reversed. Reduced welfare compensation was not reinstated. Standardized testing in Grades Three, Six, and Nine remains in place. The Oakridges Moraine is still undeveloped (as of this edition). Privatized highways (e.g., 407ETR) and nuclear plants (e.g., Bruce Power) have not been renationalized.”

Lasting effects: Key Harris decisions, the book points out, have not been reversed – including the privatization of Highway 407 (top left) and the Bruce Power nuclear facility (top right); reduced welfare payments were not undone by Liberal successors either, nor were Harris’ many sensible education and health care reforms. (Sources of photos (clockwise from top-left): Darlene Spriel, retrieved from Foss National Leasing; Chuck Szmurlo, licensed under CC BY 2.5; CP Photo/Kevin Frayer; Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, retrieved from Canadian Dimension)

The tone is not overtly partisan, however, with most of the authors willing to criticize the Harris government where it failed, was inadequate or made serious mistakes. Campbell, for example, includes his own chapter on the 1995 Ipperwash Provincial Park blockade, which culminated in the Ontario Provincial Police shooting an Indigenous protester dead, writing that, “History will show that the newly elected Premier Harris did not choose correctly in this tragic case.”

Miller, while noting the “reasonable success” of the government when it came to the environment, expresses reservation at the “naivety of their often-simplistic policy approaches.” Parting company from Corcoran and Mintz, Miller argues the government’s decision to privatize water testing contributed to the Walkerton disaster, in which seven people died and 2,000 were sickened in spring 2000 following bacterial contamination of the town’s water supply due to local mismanagement. Meanwhile Robson, while acknowledging a certain inevitability of funding-related conflict with the public sector, asserts that the government could have avoided much of its dispute with teachers’ unions.

A serious mistake: Harris’ response to the 1995 Ipperwash Provincial Park blockade is one instance, Campbell writes, where “history will show…[he] did not choose correctly.” At left, Indigenous protesters at Ipperwash; at right, Dudley George, who was shot and killed by an Ontario Provincial Police sniper. (Sources of photos: (left) Sam McLeod/The London Free Press; (right) The London Free Press)

The book’s most interesting and impactful contribution is challenging the story we have grown accustomed to telling about the Common Sense Revolution. The Harris Legacy portrays a more complex and, paradoxically, less remarkable experience. The Harris PCs, as mentioned, were swept into office on the promise of substantial change in the wake of the disastrous five-year term of NDP Premier Bob Rae. Among the PCs’ main promises were to cut non-essential government spending (excluding healthcare) by at least 20 percent, cut income taxes by 30 percent, require welfare recipients to work (“workfare”), reform certain labour practices (such as decreasing worker’s compensation premiums), implement results-oriented education reform, freeze electricity rates, reduce the number of politicians and launch a “red-tape commission” to reduce regulatory complexity. The most clear-cut, bottom-line-style objectives were restoring balanced budgets and driving economic growth to create 725,000 new jobs.

The authors note how this was largely shaped and motivated by neoliberalism – though often implicitly. There were “no reports that businessman-turned-politician Mike Harris ever read Hayek or other intellectual leaders of the movement to reduce the role of the state,” Corcoran and Mintz note. Still, a formal understanding of economics “certainly animated some members of the political team that surrounded Harris.” But this only really meant that they believed, as do most conservatives, that reducing state intervention in favour of an impartial, free market is generally preferable.

The Common Sense Revolution, Harris wrote, was a response to Ontario’s “lost decade” under Liberal premier David Peterson (left) and NDP premier Bob Rae (right), which saw “sixty-five new tax increases, massive buildup in government spending, [and] a significant intervention by government into the marketplace.” (Sources of photos: (left) Toronto Star Photograph Archive; (right) Toronto Star Photograph Archive)

Otherwise, a consideration of both the period’s prevailing policy atmosphere and Ontario’s condition show that the Harris agenda was less radical, controversial and noteworthy than commonly depicted. It instead resembles some of the changes that had already been undertaken by centre-right and centre-left parties across the West – including the Clinton Democrats in the U.S. and the Chretien Liberals in Canada. Put broadly, a sustained period of limited economic growth and high interest rates had pushed governments – often backed by expert and academic advocacy to make public service delivery more efficient and “customer” focused – to cut spending, reduce deficits and slow down growth in the size of the public sector.

Notably, however, while centre-left parties undertook such measures with varying degrees of reluctance – Chretien, for example, delayed acting until he came to fear that the International Monetary Fund would dictate Canada’s fiscal policy – conservatives like Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. believed these were good in and of themselves.

Spirit of the age: The Harris agenda was less radical than commonly depicted, as similar changes had been made not only by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, but later by the Clinton Democrats and even the Chretien Liberals. (Source of photo: Toronto Star Photograph Archive)

These adjustments seemed particularly pressing and attractive for Ontario, which had been suffering under a sustained recession and spiralling government debt at high rates of interest. While lagging economic growth was a broader Canadian problem, it was particularly pronounced in Ontario because of its difficulty adjusting to deindustrialization and free trade. The province’s history as Canada’s economic centre meant, as Campbell puts it, “That recession had far more profound impacts on the psyche of Ontarians than may now be appreciated.”

Ontario’s deteriorating position was also not helped by the years of debt accumulated by free-spending PC and Liberal governments, which had embedded an expense-generating cost structure. It was so bad that Bob Rae’s NDP government, despite being elected in 1990 on a promise of more social spending, struggled to make up the fiscal difference through higher taxes and the spending restraints of its “Social Contract.” The NDP were undone by a double bind: even as they raised taxes, economic stagnation delivered progressively less revenue, all while unemployment and welfare claims soared.

What mattered to the Harris team, then, was not so much implementing a novel revolutionary vision but taking decisive and necessary action to restore what they believed was the province’s historic prosperity and national pre-eminence. This would be done by placing the government on a fiscally sustainable track while making the changes needed to position their province in the emerging global economy. As The Harris Legacy shows, this becomes clear once Harris’ own words are considered, particularly regarding the “Lost Decade” from 1985-1995. This was when Ontario – under the governments of Liberal David Peterson and NDPer Rae – had skewed too far towards large, intrusive, inefficient government. As Harris would later describe it:

“What’s changed is we’ve had ten years, the period we called the ‘Lost Decade’ of some sixty-five new tax increases, massive buildup in government spending, a significant intervention by government into the marketplace and so what needs to happen now is to restore the balance that Bill Davis had throughout that [earlier] period of time. We do need a correction from this politics of the past ten years. We need major change to get Ontario back on track.”

As a result, Harris’ seemingly drastic actions – short of being a baseline or universal prescription for government – are better seen as the medicine needed to return to the approach practised by Ontario’s “Big Blue Machine.” This view firmly places Harris as a continuation of the PC tradition rather than its repudiation.

Before Harris came along, Ontario suffered from recession, rising taxes and spiralling government debt; Harris moved quickly to cut spending and taxes, and by the late 90s had balanced the budget and stabilized the debt – while Ontario’s economy flourished. (Sources: (photo) CBC Archives; (graph) Financial Post)

The Common Sense Revolution was as much a creation of branding and strategic communications as of formal policy development. Certainly, it was a campaign strategy well-suited to the public mood. Early party polling, for example, showed that most Ontarians favoured major change over mere tinkering, their urgency motivated by a sense that the Liberals and NDP had equally failed to repair the province’s broken status quo. As Herle, a former top-level Liberal election campaigner, also points out in his chapter on the 1995 and 1999 elections, the PCs’ rise from an initial third place to government was helped by the Liberals’ decision to employ a non-confrontational, front-runner campaign strategy.

As The Harris Legacy moves from the government’s main fiscal and economic priorities to other policy areas, what emerges is a more pragmatic government that draws alternatingly upon abstract policy principles and the period’s prevailing expert wisdom. The new premier moved very quickly and decisively on his main objectives, taking on whatever dissent this generated. His government accomplished its goals to cut government spending and income taxes, stabilizing the province’s net debt by 1999 – quite an accomplishment in only four years.

Back to boom times: The Harris years were marked by plunging unemployment and welfare dependency, and Ontario’s economy took off, although his government’s commitment to privatization and spending restraint wavered in its second term. (Source of graph: rankandfile)

The Harris election also was soon followed by a return to strong economic growth above the Canadian average, reducing the number of unemployed and the number of welfare claimants. Eugene Beaulieu notes that the Harris government also met its ambitious job creation targets. Nevertheless, by Harris’ second term, real per capita spending – particularly in healthcare – once again began to climb to match growth in revenue. “Viewed by the numbers,” Corcoran and Mintz declare, “the last period of the Harris era, up until 2003, began to look more like the middle-of-the-road Ontario had traveled in earlier years.”

Neoliberalism, understood here as a focus on reducing the size, scope and cost of government, was not the modus operandi of the Harris government – despite it doing so in several areas. Corcoran and Mintz criticize its wavering devotion to privatization and would have liked to see much more of this “common economic sense.” The government’s lack of interest in privatizing Ontario’s infamous liquor control monopoly “remains a significant lost opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of privatization.” Here they regard Harris as descending to the same self-interested and politically expedient manoeuvring of most politicians: “Never mind the consumer and the market. The objective became preserving and enhancing government revenues.”

In a similar vein, Falk argues that, when it came to healthcare, the Harris government represented “exceptionally well-done central planning.” A supposed “common sense” government relied entirely on expert opinion and did not implement many market mechanisms. While a progressive, Falk expresses reservations about this approach, criticizing the failure to replace fee schedules with a program of consumer choice.

The more pragmatic stance can, finally, be seen in the approach to municipalities, infrastructure development and the environment. The government was keen to introduce free-market tools to decrease costs and encourage economic growth, including by lifting rent control, selling off low-income housing and government property, and implementing a more streamlined Planning Act. It also, however, reorganized municipal government through amalgamation, brought in environmental protections (specifically the Oak Ridges Moraine), spent substantially on arts and culture, and pursued initial plans for “smart growth” (i.e., limiting unrestrained suburban development).

All of this still doesn’t mean the Harris government operated without core principles. The book’s few passages that explore Harris personally show that these existed but formed more of a flexible foundation based largely on the social values of North Bay, the Northern Ontario community that the Toronto-born Harris long called home, rather than a formal ideological structure. This is what Watt in The Harris Legacy’s final chapter calls the “intuitive Mike Harris.” Harris’ policy agenda oriented consistently around his personal values of fairness, equality of opportunity and respect for individuals. Thus, the Common Sense Revolution’s urgent conviction was born of the conviction that government, while an important social utility, was living outside both its means and its proper purview.

The “intuitive Mike Harris”: Shaped by the social values of his hometown of North Bay (top), Harris was driven by a respect for fairness and equal opportunity rather than guided by a formal ideological structure. Shown at bottom left, Harris playing golf in September 1995; bottom right, opening the 24th Annual Osprey Links Charity Golf Gala in August 2022. (Sources of photos: (bottom left) Toronto Star Photograph Archive; (bottom right) Stu Campaigne/BayToday)

What, then, is the real Harris legacy? The general reality is that, outside of some pressing public issues, government administration is typically quite boring. When it comes to the actual exercise of power in democracies, of really getting things done, what matters is less the intensity of ideological conviction than a willingness to implement well-thought-out, decisive and impactful administrative changes. The prevailing impression of the Harris administration, as communicated by The Harris Legacy, is of one that got on with the work of governing. And it is here, rather than in the Common Sense Revolution’s political rhetoric, that Harris’ impact becomes clearest.

This is not to say the Harris government was above the temptation to employ political theater, nor does it mean its campaign strategies found no success. But it does show that discussions of ideology or broad and abstract narratives of overarching policy challenges can only get you so far. Indeed, it is – for better or worse – a clear illustration of the relatively narrow scope of political discourse in Canada that Mike Harris, whom this book demonstrates was a right-leaning moderate by global standards, is habitually placed at the far end of our ideological spectrum.

Sam Routley is a PhD Student in Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.

Source of main image: CP Photo/Rene Johnston.

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