In the mood for cuts: How the ‘Common Sense Revolution’ swept Ontario in 1995

Furious with the NDP and unimpressed with the Liberals, voters elected Mike Harris’s tax-cutting, government-shrinking Progressive Conservatives
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on June 6, 2018
former Ontario premier Mike Harris with his then-wife Janet
Mike Harris and his then-wife, Janet, on election night in 1995. (Frank Gunn/CP)

This is the seventh in a series of articles detailing the elections that shaped Ontario.

Surely it couldn’t happen again. When the 1995 provincial election was called on April 28, polls showed that the Liberals were supported by half of Ontario — the same numbers they’d showed five years earlier. Surely the unpopularity of Premier Bob Rae’s government would send the NDP into political oblivion. Surely the “Common Sense Revolution” that the Progressive Conservatives had road-showed over the previous year was too mean-spirited for most voters to support. Surely the province would opt for the comfort of the mushy middle.

But, as it had been in 1990, the early polling was wrong. At the end of a 40-day campaign, Ontario was in a revolutionary mood, and it embraced a platform that had resulted from the Progressive Conservatives’ long, careful rebuilding process.

During the early 1990s, lingering vestiges of the Bill Davis-era “Big Blue Machine” had been swept away as the party moved further to the right under Mike Harris and his young advisers. Via mailouts and town-hall meeting, a new grassroots base was built, made up of people for whom the message of tax cuts, small-business assistance, and tough talk on crime and social assistance resonated. A combination of corporate canvassing, direct-mail appeals, and fundraising dinners rebuilt the party’s finances. Officials worked with supporters of the Reform Party at the riding level, preventing the Reformers from launching their own provincial wing and splitting the right-wing vote.

In May 1994, the party produced the Common Sense Revolution (CSR). The 21-page document presented a full program of policies designed to reduce the size of government and repudiate pretty much everything the Liberals and NDP stood for. It proposed to:

  • Reduce income tax by 30 per cent over three years
  • Cut the direct provincial workforce by 15 per cent
  • Freeze hydro rates for five years
  • Reduce the number of MPPs by using federal riding boundaries
  • Require welfare recipients to work or go to retraining programs to earn their benefits (a policy soon nicknamed “workfare”)
  • Deregulate university tuition
  • Cut Workers’ Compensation Board premiums
  • Restructure labour laws to weaken the power of unions
  • Explore selling off assets, such as the LCBO and TVO, to pay down the provincial debt

Anger had been growing against the Rae government. The list of actions that cost the NDP public support grew long over its five-year term: it abandoned a proposal for public auto insurance, raised taxes, ran up the deficit, introduced photo radar, and, most infamously, introduced the Social Contract, which aimed to save public-sector jobs by mandating unpaid days off. The business community was irritated by minimum-wage increases, employment equity, and the banning of replacement workers during strikes. Internally, the sinking popularity of the NDP led one federal MP to suggest the party change its name.

As the election approached, the PCs’ constant showcasing of the CSR attracted many potential candidates, who then underwent an intensive training course to ensure they stayed on message. After reviewing polling data, the candidates were guided through the CSR line by line, then tested on it. They were also presented with possible campaign scenarios, many of which turned out to be accurate when it came to the fate of the Liberals.

As they enjoyed such a sizable lead when the election was called, Liberal leader Lyn McLeod’s team went into protective mode to avoid any colossal mistakes, which proved a colossal mistake. They formed a bubble around her, limiting the number of questions the press could ask, especially if scrums grew heated. The public had known little about her before the campaign and knew little more at its end. They knew that she had flip-flopped on proposed NDP legislation for same-sex spousal benefits, having supported it during a Toronto-area by-election, then opposed it when she felt the addition of adoption rights went too far. The Liberals tried to match the CSR with a Red Book inspired by the one Jean Chretien had used successfully during the 1993 federal campaign. This version failed to inspire, coming off as a confusing, watered-down version of the CSR at four times its length. The party also focused much of its initial criticism on the NDP instead of on the PCs.

The NDP, sensing its chance of victory was slim, focused its energy on its strongholds in Toronto, the north, and the southwest. Rae initially employed a statesmanlike approach, noting that “we must not turn away from people who need compassion and direction and who need assistance and partnership and solidarity with the rest of our society.” His criticisms of the PCs, though, became more impassioned as the campaign wore on. When asked whether Ontarians were voting against the party or for something else, he said he felt they were in the mood for cuts. “But,” he noted, “damned if I’m going to be the one who gives it to them.” One group the NDP continued to antagonize was the press, whom it blamed for many of its problems — it failed to provide journalists with food on the campaign trail and charged exorbitant travel rates.

The Liberal lead rapidly declined following the leaders’ debate on May 18. While media pundits declared McLeod the winner, voters were turned off by her perceived abrasiveness and waving of the Red Book. The following weekend, in a conversation about spousal abuse, she observed that verbal abuse was grounds to expel a spouse from their home. The Toronto Sun jumped on the comment, using it to portray McLeod as being too politically correct (a headline read “Yell at your spouse and lose your house”). By the time she focused her efforts on attacking Harris’s tax cuts and workfare policies during the fifth week of the campaign, the Liberals were in freefall.

Apart from a pair of early gaffes related to holding a referendum on the future of Casino Windsor and criticizing university tenure, the PCs stuck to their message of “common sense.” Attacks claiming that Harris was spiteful and mean-spirited, and pokes at his background as a golf pro, didn’t stick. While the media was confused by the party’s rising numbers, voters were happy to say why the PCs had earned their vote. “Harris sounds realistic,” a first-time PC voter told the Toronto Star. “I don’t believe he’ll do all of it, but I think he’s working in the right direction.”

Many agreed. On June 8, the PCs emerged with 44.8 percent of the vote, earning 82 seats to the Liberals’ 36 and the NDP’s 17. “Harris’s appeal to the traditional values of Ontario’s settler culture — self-reliance, low taxes, minimal interference from big-city politicians — struck chords both with the hinterlands and with the edge cities, including many of the most recent settlers who had moved to Canada from Asia and elsewhere,” journalist John Ibbitson later observed. “Harris had tapped the root values of a culture many more sophisticated critics thought no longer existed. “

Among the rookie PC MPPs elected that night was Doug Ford, Sr., representing Etobicoke–Humber. “Despite my natural skepticism, I never doubted that the people of the area would keep the promises that they made me on their doorstep,” he told the Toronto Sun. “I will do all in my power to get the ship’s sail back up and on course once again.”

McLeod and Rae won their seats, but both handed in their party leaderships within the next year. “I am always learning again that life is too short to be bitter or to look back with recrimination or second guesses,” Rae said that night. “The people have spoken, a new government with a very different perspective has been chosen, and we shall all have to live with the results.”

The morning after the vote, Harris held a press conference in North Bay and issued a warning to the province: “We are going to implement changes. Some people may not want those changes.”

The combative spirit of the Mike Harris premiership was already in evidence.

Sources: Right Turn: How the Tories Took Ontario by Christina Blizzard (Toronto: Dundurn, 1995); Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution by John Ibbitson (Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1997); From Protest to Power by Bob Rae (Toronto: Penguin, 1997); Rae Days by Thomas Walkom (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1994); the May 15, 1995 edition of the Globe and Mail; the June 19, 1995 edition of Maclean’s; the June 3, 1995, June 7, 1995, and June 9, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star; and the June 9, 1995 edition of the Toronto Sun.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters. 

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