In Ontario political circles, they call Dave Johnson “Mr. Fixit”—the tall, gangly relief pitcher Premier Mike Harris sends in when he particularly needs a win. Until his latest assignment—the education portfolio on the eve of the largest teachers' strike in North American history—Johnson always delivered. In 2%years in government, the 51-year-old Johnson has chaired the management board, served as house leader and acting health minister—and resolved a series of firefights. Among his successes: overseeing deep spending cuts to the civil service after a bitter five-week strike, and heading off a potential doctors’ walkout.
But nothing in politics is forever, especially a winning streak. Despite the teachers’ expected return to work, the fight over Bill 160 continues. One casualty is Johnson’s can-do image, because of the widespread impression that Harris has given him little negotiating room with the teachers. In fact, Tory sources and others say that while Johnson is a staunch supporter of the party’s Common Sense Revolution platform, the hardline strategy against the teachers was decided by Harris and advisers Leslie Noble, Alastair Campbell and Tom Long. The present situation “puts Johnson in a position where clearly he’s not culpable,” says political consultant Graham Murray, editor of the newsletter Inside Queen’s Park. “But it’s embarrassing for a senior minister to be sidelined or nudged out of the way.”
Another problem is an unusual decision taken by Harris, whose government is committed to balancing the province’s books.
In other governments that made deep cuts, such as the federal Liberals and Alberta's Conservatives, the finance minister took personal responsibility. That allowed other ministers who were required to implement cuts to counter criticism by saying their hands were tied. But the Tories have not given Johnson that option, leaving him in a near-impossible situation: he has been left personally accountable for cuts to education while having to plead with teachers to bend on other issues.
Much of the standoff revolves around Harris’s determination to chop about $670 billion from the education system’s $14-billion budget. The premier, in a recent interview with Maclean's, said the decision to do so came from asking the rhetorical question:
“Is it reasonable that about four cents out of every education dollar is wasted?” As proposed, the reduction virtually ensures layoffs of teachers—and the continuing ire of their unions.
And while cutting money is a priority for the Tories, they have other goals for the school system—which they insist are equally important. One is to shift many powers from local school boards to the education ministry (provincial officials say they often lose their best employees to local boards, where they have more say over curricula and often make
more money than all but the highest-ranked provincial mandarins). The Tories say the unions like the decentralized system largely because they can “cherry pick” school boards during contract negotiations: the unions put all their resources into the local talks to gain major contract concessions, then use the settlement as a benchmark for other boards. Another issue is the Tories’ long-term plans for sweeping structural change to the education system—including eventually cutting one full year out of secondary school education.
But such initiatives require co-operation from the teachers. And now, concedes one Harris adviser, “You have a minister [Johnson] perceived as only an emissary, and a poisonous climate between two sides who must co-operate on any long-term reform.” Before the strike, polls suggested that the teachers would lose in public opinion if they walked out. But since then, they have been gaining support. None of that makes life easier for Johnson, as opponents seize on what they see as the discomfiture of one of Harris’s most effective performers. “Dave Johnson is the perfect guy for this job,” says NDP Leader Howard Hampton. “He has a nice smile, a pleasing manner—and he’ll never do anything that has not specifically been agreed upon in advance by the premier.” For Mr. Fixit to finish his job, he must convince opponents that his leader has given him the tools.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.