Canada

A Premier Performance

HARRIS STUCK TO THE PARTY LINEBUDGET CUTS POSED NO HAZARD

Barbara Wickens July 9 2001
Canada

A Premier Performance

HARRIS STUCK TO THE PARTY LINEBUDGET CUTS POSED NO HAZARD

Barbara Wickens July 9 2001

A Premier Performance

HARRIS STUCK TO THE PARTY LINEBUDGET CUTS POSED NO HAZARD

After eight months and 107 witnesses, the inquiry into last year’s tainted-water scandal in Walkerton, Ont., finally reached its anticipated climax—or more like its anti-climax. In his testimony last week, Premier Mike Harris simply reiterated what he’s said before: that neither he nor his cabinet were ever warned that budget cuts to the environment ministry posed any risk to public health. Still, instead of just jawing with reporters or making speeches in the Ontario legislature, Harris had to visit the rural Ontario community where seven people died and more than 2,000 fell ill after drinking water tainted with E. coli 0157:H7 in May, 2000. Then, after running a gauntlet of protest-

ers—at least 50 police officers were on hand to help him do so—he swore on a Bible to tell the truth. And with that, Harris stepped into the history books as the first Ontario premier in over 55 years to testify before a judicial inquiry. (The last to face one was George Drew in 1945, testifying about the OPP’s pursuit of suspected Communists.)

The often combative Harris was subdued during his six hours on the stand, but his words still carried a punch. He said that when the Conservatives came to power in 1995, they felt their most immediate concern was reducing the province’s $ 10.6-billion deficit. As part of its downsizing program, the government cut more than $200 million from the

environment ministry’s budget and slashed 750 jobs, including many frontline inspectors. But, Harris testified, senior ministry officials and the minister in charge were convinced the cuts were safe. “If we felt there was any risk and it had been brought to my attention,” he added, “we would not have proceeded.”

Inquiry lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo was skeptical, reminding Harris of the mounds of evidence to the contrary. “We’ve got document upon document upon document of increased risk to health and ^ safety,” he declared.

I It was a tough week for I Harris all around. Despite his four appearances to support the byelection campaign of floundering Tory candidate Joyce Frustaglio, she lost badly to Liberal Greg Sorbara, receiving just 12,183 votes to his 21,954. While governments are traditionally not unduly concerned by such midterm defeats, political analysts said this loss was significant. The Vaughan/King/Aurora riding, held by popular cabinet minister Al Palladini until his death in March, is part of the so-called 905 belt that voted solidly Tory in the past two provincial elections. There was another omen last week that the Conservatives may be losing their stranglehold on Ontario. An Ipsos-Reid poll put their support at just 33 per cent, compared with 53 per cent for Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.

Barbara Wickens

Did the Ontario Tories turn their back on public safety?

\\ \\ \\ . maclea ns. ca