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THE HARRIS YEARS: A ROOKIE TERM REPORT CARD
May, 29 1999
Still no endorsement. We remain sadly unimpressed by this election campaign. Name-calling, negative advertising and cynical strategizing have supplanted meaningful debate and discussion. To date, no party has proven itself worthy of the sacred trust Ontarians bestow through their vote. We continue to hope that, against all odds, in the few days remaining, one of the men who would be premier will experience an ethical epiphany and demonstrate real leadership. Failing that, we’ll join the growing multitude of voters on June 3, holding our noses all the way to the ballot box and supporting our personal lesser-of-evils choice. Meanwhile, we offer our subjective assessment of the last four years under the Mike Harris government. Please note, this is our take on the term prior to the election. For this campaign, we grade all the players the same: F. TAXES: Say what you want about the Harris agenda, on matters of taxation the Tories have been as good as their word. They pledged a 30 per cent cut on average, and they delivered. They promised to replace an arcane property tax system, and they did so with market value assessment. They lose marks for shoddy implementation and for not moving fast or far enough on business taxes. But we have to credit this government for tackling thorny tax issues their predecessors wouldn’t touch. Grade: A. – ECONOMIC MANAGEMENT: Lower taxes have contributed to job growth, although not to the extent Mike Harris would have us believe. Ontario’s growth rate is twice the rest of Canada and unemployment, at 6.4 per cent, is well below the national average of 7.8 per cent. Tax cuts and a welcoming business environment get credit, as do a buoyant U.S. economy and vibrant trade market. On the spending side, the Tories don’t fare so well. Harris likes to portray himself as a cutter, but the opposite is true. The Common Sense Revolution promised 20 per cent cuts in “non-priority” spending areas — $6 billion. Instead, spending this year is higher than it was in 1995. The Tories also added $22 billion to the debt. Although they haven’t balanced the budget, their commitment was to eliminate the deficit by 2001, and they’re on track to do that. Grade: B–. – EDUCATION: Standardized testing — good. Revitalized curriculum — good for the most part, but much greater preparation and consultation is required. Equalized funding formula so that, in effect, every student gets the same funding — conceptually good, but damaging for students if the formula isn’t adequate and without provisions for special needs, like language training and special education. The Tories promised to contain spiralling education taxes, and they did. Overall, though, most of the good they’ve accomplished in education is negated by botched implementation, hideous disorganization at the ministry level and a demeaning, confrontational approach towards educators. That’s an inappropriate way for Ontario’s government to behave, and it runs counter to the the Tory mantra of providing the best possible education for our children. Grade: D, with mandatory remedial action. – HEALTH: This is the most difficult area to assess because it remains a work in progress. The government says health care spending is up over 1995; the opposition says that, adjusted for inflation and population growth, it’s down. Either way, it’s at roughly the same level as when Harris was elected. But health-care adaptability, responsiveness and accountability are as important as money. Credit the Tories for taking action on health care where previous governments ran for cover. The system was burdened by bureaucracy and unwieldy infrastructure, was too slow to respond to changing trends in health and, in general, didn’t provide the best service for reasonable public cost. Unfortunately, the Tories were less successful in the way they went about their task. They appointed a panel of experts to decide what should close and what should open. That should have been the government’s job. The decision to reform by decree led to some painful mistakes, like the loss of so many nurses that a critical shortage now exists. The Tories moved with such haste on big-ticket hospital health-care reform, other equally important areas were left behind, in particular, the evolution from institutionally-centred to community-based care and long overdue primary care reform. Grade: C. On Monday, we continue our appraisal of the Harris government’s first term.
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Governing the province
The best option for Ontario
June, 03 1995
As Ontarians look to find a sense of inspiration in an election campaign that has become more emotional and polarized, the vision of an ideal government has no doubt crossed the minds of many voters. It would be a government which delivered quality public services within stable finances and fair taxation, strengthened job creation, encouraged investment and governed with prudence and concern for all. The government would bring people together rather than dividing them, taking care not to create new problems in solving old ones. It would have decisive leadership with the courage to tackle Ontario’s serious fiscal problems. Neither Liberal leader Lyn McLeod nor Conservative leader Mike Harris has fully captured the imagination of voters in terms of dynamic leadership qualities and personal appeal. The Conservatives, however, appear to have gained by more clearly spelling out their vision for smaller, less intrusive government in response to interventionist NDP economic and social policies. The Liberals have not been as effective in staking out their position, so far. The Liberals, however, have presented their middle-of-the-road agenda for change in a more responsible way than the Tories. There is cause for concern that a party which proposes to govern in a more moderate way than either of its rivals is being overshadowed by shrill voices on the left and right. Our preference is for the Liberals over the Conservatives as the best choice for a new government. On the basis of the Liberal program and style of campaigning (not the efficiency of the campaign), Ontario is more likely to be governed in a more pragmatic and sensitive way than the Harris-led Conservatives. Mr. Harris has developed a stronger leadership image than Ms McLeod, but has been prone to discussing issues in a harsh and intemperate tone. If he were to become premier, he would quickly need to steer a mainstream course and show that he can govern in the prudent fashion of his Conservative predecessors. After 4 1/2 years fractious years of a government driven by a left-wing ideology, Ontario would be ill-served if more unnecessary upheaval were created by a leader whose message of a “revolution” based on a right-wing ideology raises the spectre of confrontation. In a more positive vein, both opposition parties have issued detailed policy programs and are philosophically attuned to the essential priorities — economic growth and more responsible management of public finances. While they approach the issues with significant differences in style, both parties recognize a flourishing private sector is fundamental to making Ontario more prosperous. We share the doubts among voters as to whether these parties are capable of delivering on ambitious promises. Even financial analysts, normally supportive of tax reductions, are concerned that tax cuts at this point could drive Ontario into deeper trouble. In any case, the Liberals and Tories say that Ontario can do much better — with balanced budgets, lower taxes, and more efficient services than offered by the big, bureaucratic programs favored by the NDP. Mr. Harris has certainly capitalized on two issues of concern — rising welfare costs and the NDP’s unpopular employment equity legislation. But as a would-be premier, he has a responsibility to present the case for reform with more sensitivity in a pluralistic society. Mr. Harris should also be reminded that a premier must represent all of Ontario. The feasibility of his deficit reduction plan remains a major question mark. Mr. Harris, committed to the largest tax cuts, would take five years to balance the budget. Even that schedule is far from certain. Mr. Harris’ reliance on tax cuts to produce an army of jobs has a dogmatic leap of faith to it. His own survey of 500 people, released this week, indicated that he may be too optimistic in estimating the job creation impact of his plan to cut the provincial income tax rate by 30 per cent over three years. Only 35 per cent of those surveyed said they would spend the extra money, as opposed to investing or saving it. Ms McLeod, for her part, hasn’t boxed her party in with tax reductions as large as those of the Conservatives. Largely because of that, most analysts — if they had to choose — prefer the Liberal plan as the more reasonable route to a balanced budget. There is widespread concern, however, that none of the three parties has a program that’s disciplined enough to correct Ontario’s precarious finances to protect health, education and the social safety net. New spending commitments in the Liberal plan — totalling almost $3 billion over five years — have prompted criticism that the Liberals would actually spend more than the NDP. The Liberals continue to bear the burden of the high-spending Peterson government, which enjoyed a major economic expansion but allowed spending to run out of control and didn’t pay down the debt. The Liberals, under Ms McLeod, must demonstrate quickly and decisively that they have learned that lesson. Although she has a fuzzy image, Ms McLeod should not be underestimated. Her career in public life has been characterized by caution and consultation, which are solid values for a politician — especially in these troubled times. She is described by associates as a person who takes a lot of time to make a decision, but once her mind is made up , she sticks to it. In contrast to the ‘General Bullmoose’ image that Mr. Harris often displays in the legislature and along the campaign trail, Ms McLeod shapes up as a chairman of the board with good consensus skills in the premier’s office. In our view she should be given the chance to govern.