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David Frum: Mike Harris was a very Canadian revolutionary

Mike Harris walks past billboard on the side of his campaign bus
Thought Leader: David Frum
April 8, 2024
Written by: David Frum
In a new book, David Frum discusses the lessons that can be learned from former Ontario premier Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution.”

 

There is something very Canadian about the phrase “Common Sense Revolution” (CSR). Like such previous Canadian concepts as “progressive conservatism” and “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription,” the phrase promises to unify opposites in search of a pragmatic balance. To outsiders, it can all seem very illogical. And yet, Canadians somehow make their unusual combinations work.

The CSR was built around a man as typically Canadian as the movement itself. Undramatic, self-effacing, self-controlled, Mike Harris presented himself as the kind of neighbour a homeowner would trust with the house keys. On the night of his election as premier of Ontario in 1995, he joked: “I can’t imagine why anybody would want this job,” as if it had somehow fallen upon him by accident.

Yet beneath the genial exterior was the steel will of a man who had to relearn to walk at age 35, after he was confined to a wheelchair by a crippling neurological disorder. It would not have been Harris’ way to make the comparison, but in his own physical recovery he might have found a parallel to the political task that confronted his new government.

 

A changed Ontario

From the end of the Second World War to the end of the 1980s, Ontario ranked as one of the luckiest places on earth. Powered by cheap and abundant hydroelectricity, joined by waterways to the great industrial cities of the American Midwest, Ontario flourished as a manufacturing powerhouse. Political instability in Quebec pushed the financial industry from Montreal to Toronto. Immigrants arrived to seize the opportunities of this booming heartland.

Then, one by one, the old formulas stopped working. In the early ’90s, Ontario tumbled into the severest recession since the ’30s. Long established businesses never recovered. Many smaller cities and towns lost their major employers. The province found itself deeply in debt, at high rates of interest. New competition from Mexico, China, India and beyond forced a rethink of the old economic model. The jobs of the future demanded different skills from those of the past. After two failed rounds of constitutional reform, separatist sentiment intensified in the West and Quebec.

 

Not your parents’ Progressive Conservative party

Ontario politics had long favoured moderation and muddling through. In the famous words of one of the most successful politicians of the era: “bland works.” In fact, from 1943 to 1985, a single political party governed Ontario. Extreme political continuity was the rule in early postwar Canada, at both the federal and the provincial levels. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? But now something was broke. In 1985, Ontarians ended the long era of Progressive Conservative hegemony, choosing the opposition Liberal party. Not getting the change they sought, in 1990 Ontarians elected the first social-democratic government in their history.

In 1995, they voted for change once more, swinging back to the Progressive Conservatives. But what they chose was in fact a reinvented Conservative party that no longer presented itself as middle of the road but as an ideologically vigorous riposte to the previous hard swing to the left. Bland no longer worked.

Harris argued that Ontario had suffered a “lost decade” from 1985 to 1995. “The system is broken,” he said in the introduction to the CSR platform. “I’m prepared to actually do something about it.” But critically, he did not vow to “Make Ontario Great Again.” Instead, he embraced the future and accelerated Ontario’s transition to a new kind of economy.

The changes to the Ontario economy had shifted population, wealth and clout from towns to cities. Big cities incubated new cultural and political attitudes: culturally progressive, economically redistributive, attitudes often inimical to the cities’ own success by undercutting the sources of their prosperity. The cultural divide that so defines 21st-century politics in every democracy asserted itself fiercely in the Ontario of the ’90s. Harris championed the needs of metropolitan Canada. It was Harris’ government that amalgamated the boroughs of the old Toronto into one streamlined metropolitan government, enabling later generations to build even wider regional structures for the Greater Toronto Area. Yet even as Harris modernized metropolitan governance, he refused to surrender the values of non-metropolitan Canada: a social welfare system that expected work; effective but limited government; respect for people as individuals, not as representatives of warring collective identities.

 

The furies

The Harris combination of old values and new ideas proved highly contentious. Ontario politics had become rowdier in the tough times of the early ’90s. The social-democratic NDP government of 1990–1995 tore itself apart long before it was rejected by the voters. But even as the Harris government stabilized Ontario’s rejuvenated economy, it could not quiet the political and cultural furies that have roiled modern Canadian politics. That fury continued even after Harris departed active politics. The passions of those days still shape Ontario’s collective memory and often distort the accounts of historians and policy experts. Too many of those accounts put the emphasis on the “revolution” part of the formula and not enough on the “common sense.”

The Harris Conservatives were not embarked on some ideological bender of their own devising. They always respected the hard limits of Canadian politics. Things that had been settled — the government health care monopoly, bilingualism, quasi-national sovereignty for Indigenous peoples — they mostly left settled. Instead, they responded to immediate problems and to an electorate that had already rejected the muddle-through policies of the ’70s and ’80s.

The CSR was both principled and pragmatic: principled because it was founded on deep commitments to individual initiative, to personal responsibility and to the value of work; pragmatic because it applied its principles to problems everybody agreed were pressing. Here there are four enduring lessons from the ’90s for later generations.

 

Four Lessons

The first is that unsound public finances will sooner or later make themselves felt. The early 21st century saw extended periods of ultra-low interest rates, when public borrowing on a wartime scale seemed consequence-free. But the consequences lurk, and when they arrive, they force painful decisions. It was a real question, in 1993, whether Canada and its provinces might default on their debts. That question was decisively rebutted over the ensuing decade, but getting there was painful, with dramatic reductions required in spending levels at federal, provincial and municipal levels. The left would disparage it as “austerity.” Conservatives would argue that it worked. But all would agree it was not an experience that anyone should willingly repeat. A lesson worth keeping in mind as interest rates rise and debt interest costs throughout the developed world climb steadily upward once more.

A second enduring lesson is the power of clear political communication. The CSR specified in advance what it would seek to do. That clarity conferred a moral mandate for action in office. Harris won his second term despite the fierce controversies of the first because Ontarians recognized he had done what he had promised to do. He wrote his own contract with the electorate, and even those who might not have endorsed its terms had to acknowledge the integrity with which they were honoured.

A third lesson is one more relevant than ever in the 21st century: the potential of cross-identity politics in a multi-ethnic society. Mike Harris trusted that fiscal and economic concerns could span the ethnocultural divides that united more Ontarians than divided them. That faith was rewarded. Some population groups elsewhere vote reliably for the parties of the right; others for parties of the left, less because they care about the issues or platforms of the right or left, more because they have been made to feel unwelcome by one or the other. That is not the Canadian way. All the parties compete for all of the vote, sometimes successfully, and that success started with breakthroughs scored by the Harris Conservatives in the heavily ethnic Toronto suburbs in the ’90s on a platform of prosperity, public safety and honouring achievement.

A fourth lesson is more about political style. Harris could talk tough, but he wanted to gain support and allay opposition, not excite discontent and mobilize grievance. All these years later, voters still respond to leaders who gain trust by earning it for themselves, not by fomenting distrust of everyone and everything else.

Mike Harris stepped down in 2002. His party lost power the following year. It would return in 2018 to face a looming crisis unlike anything seen in a century: a global pandemic followed by a revival of global inflation. In the interim, much has changed for parties of the right all over the world. In many places, they have espoused grievance rather than aspiration. They have sought votes by mobilizing resentments rather than by offering opportunities. They have found themselves whipsawed between their former principles, which still celebrate enterprise and markets, and their recent electorates, who fear both. Mike Harris’s CSR reminds us that conservatism can be sensible, practical and decent and still be energizing and exciting. It can offer a better chance to anyone ready to invest the effort without manipulating paranoia or exploiting disdain against out-groups.

This legacy of a different age provides a valuable resource. The Common Sense Revolution Mike Harris led bequeaths a record to study, critique, emulate and improve. The goal of the CSR was to offer more opportunity and better government to every willing citizen. That goal can still summon Canadians to politics, even as old debates are forgotten.

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