CANADA

Talking revolution

'The average Ontario family is poorer today'

PAUL KAIHLA May 15 1995
CANADA

Talking revolution

'The average Ontario family is poorer today'

PAUL KAIHLA May 15 1995

Talking revolution

CANADA

'The average Ontario family is poorer today'

Robin Marcelle is not male, middle-aged or particularly well-off. In other words, she is not a stereotypical Conservative party supporter. But Mike Harris appeared to have won the sympathy of the 30-year-old salesclerk at a stop on the campaign trail leading up to the province’s June 8 election. The leader of the Ontario Tories was telling workers at a Toronto-area Consumer’s Distributing store that his plans for a 30-per-cent cut in provincial income tax rates will create jobs and, in turn, increase profits and wages. Marcelle, a single mother of two, makes the provincial minimum wage of $6.85 per hour as a Consumer’s employee. “I was impressed,” declared Marcelle, who cast her ballot for the New Democrats in the 1990 provincial election. “I’m leaning to Harris because I liked what I heard on the tax cut and his promise to help people who really need it.”

While Marcelle has little in common with most card-carrying Tories, she is precisely the kind of voter Harris is targeting as he campaigns to unseat NDP Premier Bob Rae and overcome the huge lead in the polls enjoyed by Liberal Leader Lyn McLeod, the

front-runner. Harris’s campaign is aiming at nothing less than a wholesale realignment of Ontario politics. The Conservatives are hoping to draw a new block of the electorate to their party—urban working-class voters who have average, or below-average, incomes and often lack postsecondary education. They have typically voted for the Liberals or New Democrats in the past. But now, Conservative strategists say, they are fed up with high taxes and NDP policies such as hiring targets for minorities. “We are going after people who have conservative values but don’t necessarily identify themselves with the Conservative party,” says Tory campaign chairman Tom Long. “They are misleadingly called ‘blue collar.’ They do not at all share the values of the NDP, and Mike Harris has enormous appeal with them.”

Tory Leader Mike Harris pursues a radical shift in provincial politics

Part of that appeal is the 50-year-old Tory leader’s image as a practical and unpretentious family man. “He’s friendly,” Marcelle said after meeting the candidate last week. “It didn’t seem like he was putting on a show.” A burly man who often talks with his hands poised as if they are about to catch a basketball, Harris is an avid outdoorsman and former golf pro whose small-town values

were formed in North Bay, a city of 65,000 on the shore of Lake Nipissing in Northern Ontario. Although the father of two has sat in the provincial legislature since 1981, and has led his party for five years, he is attempting to run as an outsider in this election. His proposed tax cut is just one of several pledges aimed at reducing the size of government. His platform, outlined in a 21-page document called the Common Sense Revolution, promises to save a family of four with an income of $50,000 more than $4,000 in taxes during the next three years. “The average Ontario family is poorer today than it was 10 years ago,” Harris charged last week in a speech at the campaign headquarters of Elizabeth Witmer, a Conservative MPP from Waterloo. ‘You know how to spend your money better than any politician or bureaucrat knows how to spend your money.”

But according to the Conservatives’ own internal polling, the campaign is an uphill battle. Their tracking shows that on May 1, three days after the election call, the Liberals enjoyed the support of roughly 50 per cent of decided voters, compared with about 30 per cent for the Tories and 20 per cent for the NDP. Harris hoped to pre-empt any momentum McLeod might gain with her release last week of an 82-page red booklet of campaign promises by making an issue of quotas in the workplace. Under NDP employment equity legislation that took effect last September, private companies with 100 or more employees must establish hiring targets for visible minorities, aboriginals, disabled people and women by next year, or face a maximum fine of $50,000. At the end of the week, Harris vowed to rescind the law, declaring: “I want an Ontario where people are judged by their qualifications, not legislated equality.” Another key part of Harris’s agenda is his promise to balance Ontario’s budget in five years by cutting $6 billion in annual government expenditures (currently $52 billion), while maintaining present funding levels for health care, education and police services. Harris has also said he would freeze the minimum wage, force able-bodied welfare recipients to enroll in training programs or community service to keep their benefits, and privatize assets such as TVOntario, the provincially owned television network. At her campaign kickoff on April 28, Liberal Leader McLeod said Harris’s platform was proof that he was not up to the challenge of governing Ontario. “The answer isn’t making wild, simplistic promises that can’t be kept

and whose numbers don’t add up,” she said. Last week, Rae attacked the cost-cutting plans of both Harris and McLeod, dismissing them as “irresponsible.”

Harris’s Common Sense Revolution is strongly reminiscent of an earlier political battle plan—the Reagan Revolution of the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign. Like Reagan, Harris is running on an anti-establishment platform of getting government off the backs of people and business. His promise of a tax cut echoes Reagan’s supply-side economics, the theory of stimulating consumer demand by allowing taxpayers to keep more of their disposable income to spend on goods. And Harris’s drive to woo workingclass Ontarians is similar to Reagan’s successful strategy of winning over union households and blue-collar workers, who became known as “Reagan Democrats.”

Harris acknowledges the parallels with Reagan’s campaign, but insists that his team did not consciously model their strategy on the former president’s blueprint. “I think ’80 Reagan is a little passé,” Harris said as he relaxed in the suite at the rear of his high-tech campaign bus—which is equipped with a computer, laser printer and two fax machines linked to Tory headquarters in Toronto. “I think what worked for Bill Clinton is probably more what my discussions looked at.” The important lesson of that campaign, his strategists say, was keeping the message focused on jobs and growth.

Like Reagan, Harris is a man set in his beliefs who does not display much intellectual curiosity. “I’m not a bookworm or a Rhodes Scholar,” he says, contrasting himself with the Oxford-educated Rae. When it comes to his taste in movies, Harris says: “I’m looking to be entertained, not to be taught anything.” His long-standing emphasis on slashing government spending has earned him the nickname “Chainsaw Mike” and an image as a mean-spirited politician in some quarters, but Harris has attempted to soften that by showing more of his private side. What emerges is a vulnerable dimension to his personality. The son of a businessman whose dream was to send his kids to college, Harris enrolled as a math and science major in 1965 at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier University), but quit before the end of his first year. He calls that one of the lowest points of his life. “Dropping out of university and sort of feeling like I was shattering my parents’ dreams—those were difficult decisions,” Harris recalls. “But I really didn’t want to be in university. I wanted to be working.”

Harris left the province to work, becoming a ski instructor at a resort in Ste-Adèle, Que., in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal. There, he met 21-year-old Mary Coward, and married her in 1967. Then came another low point. “We separated and went our own ways,” says Harris. ‘We didn’t have any children, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t have much of anything that we brought to it. It was a mistake at a time in life

when I was making mistakes, from school to what I wanted to do.”

Harris moved home to North Bay and joined his father as a partner in a small ski hill, Nipissing Ridge. At the same time, he completed a one-year certificate program at North Bay Teachers College, and began teaching Grade 7 and 8 students at a local public school. He met his wife of 21 years, Janet, in 1970 through a water-ski club. And four years later, he won election as a North Bay school board trustee, rising to chairman in 1977. At about the same time, Harris and his wife, who is now 48, took over the management of a local golf course, where he became the resident pro.

While a familiar campaign refrain of Harris’s is that entrepre-

neurs deserve to keep more of their profits, he himself did not get rich in business. In his interview with Maclean’s, he revealed that he and his wife lost $25,000 when they took over a women’s clothing store that failed during the early 1980s recession. “That was a lot of money for us at the time,” says Harris. “One of the things I was proud of is we never declared bankruptcy. I was making payments for several years after that.” According to staff and colleagues, the Conservative leader is intensely devoted to his two children, Jeffrey, 3, and 10-year-old Michael Jr. Speaking more frankly last week about his personal life than he has in the past, Harris said the decision to adopt the boys remains the most important he has

made in his life. We tried as hard as anyone could to have kids, including going through the in vitro programs when they first started,” he said. “Both of us wanted to have children, and the combination of the two of us just didn’t work.”

‘ I’m not a bookworm ora Rhodes Scholar’

In 1993, doctors told the couple that their youngest son suffered from minor cerebral palsy because of brain damage at birth, a condition that had not been apparent at the time he was adopted. The illness will impair movement in Jeffrey’s left arm and leg, and a physiotherapist visits the Harris home every day to put the toddler through exercises. “When it was diagnosed, there were a lot of tears that week,” said Harris. “It was a tough period. But since that shock, it’s been noth-

ing but good news. He’s doing marvellously.” Harris is now taking his biggest risk ever. He is not so much trying to revive the Tory dynasty that ruled Ontario from 1943 to 1985 as to make a break with it. His decision to embrace right-wing populism represents a radical departure from the mainstream allthings-to-all-people formula that kept the Tories in power for more than four decades. And while that has incited private grumbling among old veterans of the Big Blue Machine, Harris and his team insist that the party must stake out clear and dramatic positions to win power again. On June 8, Ontarians will see if they were right.

PAUL KAIHLA in London, Ont.