Mike Harris

From Academic Kids

For the Canadian writer and radio personality, see Michael Harris. For the Canadian curler, see Mike Harris (curler)

Michael Deane Harris (born January 23, 1945, in Toronto, Ontario) was the twenty-second Premier of Ontario from June 26, 1995 to April 15, 2002. He is most noted for the "Common Sense Revolution" and his large cuts to provincial programs and taxes.

Mike Harris
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image: mharris.jpg

Term of Office:June 26, 1995 - April 15, 2002
Predecessor:Bob Rae
Successor:Ernie Eves
Date of Birth:January 23, 1945
Place of Birth:Toronto, Ontario
Spouses:Mary Alyce Coward
Janet Harrison
Laura Maguire
Profession:Teacher, Businessman
Political Party:PC

Harris was born in Toronto and grew up in the area around Lake Nipissing, where his father operated a ski hill. Harris worked at his father's ski hill and became a golf pro at a local course. He then went to Laurentian University and North Bay Teacher's College, and became an elementary school teacher.

Rise to Power

He first sought election to public office as a school board trustee in 1975. He entered provincial politics in the 1981 election, and defeated the incumbent Liberal Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in Nipissing. Harris later claimed that he was motivated to enter politics by an opposition to the policies of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Harris sat as a backbencher in Bill Davis's Ontario Progressive Conservative Party government from 1981 to 1985. He supported Frank Miller's successful bid to succeed Davis as party leader in 1985, and was appointed as Minister of Natural Resources on February 8 of that year.

The Tories were reduced to a minority government in the 1985 provincial election, although Harris was personally re-elected without difficulty. He kept the Natural Resources portfolio after the election, and was also named Minister of Energy on May 17, 1985. He was unable to accomplish much in these portfolios, however, as the Miller government was soon defeated on a Motion of No Confidence by David Peterson's Liberals and Bob Rae's New Democratic Party.

An agreement between the Liberals and the NDP allowed a Liberal minority government to govern for two years in exchange for the implementation of certain NDP policies. This decision consigned the Tories to opposition for the first time in 42 years.

Miller resigned and was replaced by Larry Grossman. Grossman led the party to a disastrous showing in the 1987 election, and announced his resignation shortly thereafter. Harris, again, was re-elected without difficulty.

The party was not ready to hold a leadership convention in 1987. Grossman had lost his seat in the Legislature, and remained the official leader of the party. Sarnia MPP Andy Brandt served as "interim leader" in the Legislature until 1990, when party members in a province-wide vote elected Harris leader over Dianne Cunningham.

Harris's victory was considered something of an upset, and was sometimes credited to comparisons between Cunningham and the unpopular federal government of Brian Mulroney. Whereas Cunningham was seen as more of a Red Tory, and a choice of the establishment and the Big Blue Machine, Harris represented the party's right-wing and was not associated with the Mulroney government in the minds of most voters.

The philosophical differences between the Harris supporters and the traditional leadership of the party were significant. The older Ontario PC leadership (typified by figures such as Bill Davis) believed in consensus, was politically centrist, and was largely responsible for the elaborate welfare state that had been created in Ontario during the party's many decades in power. In contrast, Harris embodied a more confrontational style, promoting tax cuts and a shift toward the American model of free markets.

The 1990 provincial election was called soon after Harris became party leader. He was ill-prepared for the campaign, but nonetheless managed to rally his party's core supporters with pledges of tax cuts and spending reductions. Ironically, in the light of later events, Harris was personally endorsed by several local members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF). The party increased its seat total from 17 to 20, out of 130. Despite some early concerns, Harris was again able to retain his own seat.

On May 3, 1994, Harris unveiled his aggressive "Common Sense Revolution" platform, which was inspired by the United States Republican Party's "Contract with America," although free of much of its social conservatism. It called for sweeping spending cuts and large tax cuts.

By 1995, the governing New Democratic Party and incumbent Premier Bob Rae had become extremely unpopular with the electorate, largely because of the state of the Ontario and North American economies. The Liberals were leading in the pre-election polls, but after running a disastrously poor campaign began to lose support. Harris was elected with a sizeable majority government in the 1995 election. Roughly half of his party's seats came from the more affluent regions of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), especially the suburban belt surrounding Metro Toronto, often called the '905' for its telephone area code.

Harris's victory may be credited in part to the way in which he presented himself as a populist, claiming to represent "ordinary Ontarians" over "special interests". It was primarily in this manner that he was able to build Tory support among working-class voters. The Rae government had previously lost much of its base in organized labour, due in part to the unpopularity of its "Social Contract" legislation in 1993 (which Harris, after some early vacillations, eventually voted against). Although there were regional variations, many working-class voters shifted directly from the NDP to the Tories in 1995.

In addition to their '905' seats, the Tories managed to win a number of working-class ridings, such as Cambridge and Oshawa, which had previously supported the NDP. Some have speculated that Tory opposition to the Rae government's employment equity initiatives was a leading factor in this regard.

Premier of Ontario

Upon election, the Harris government immediately began to attract controversy. Its policies involved steep cuts to education, welfare, and Medicare, and the forced amalgamation of municipalities. Welfare rates were slashed by 22%, and provincial income taxes were also cut by 30%. Municipal leaders complained because many of the cuts were "downloading" the costs of services that the province had formerly paid for onto local city and municipal governments. It was this government that announced the secondary school reform to eliminate grade 13 that created the "double cohort."

A separate controversy emerged shortly after the Harris government took office, involving events at Ipperwash Provincial Park. Ontario Provincial Police Acting Sgt. Kenneth Deane fired on First Nations demonstrators who had occupied the park, killing an unarmed protester named Dudley George. The government and the OPP maintained that there was no political involvement in the shooting, but many were suspicious. In a court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, Deane maintained that he was not under orders to shoot and was convicted of criminal negligence causing death. Inside the Legislature, several opposition politicians suggested that the attack may have been ordered by the Premier's office, and called for an independent judicial inquiry. (Such an inquiry was finally called after the government of Dalton McGuinty was elected in 2003; it has not yet delivered a finding.)

In 1997, Ontario's teachers held their largest walkout in history, but were unsuccessful in getting significant changes to government policies. At Queen's Park, the site of the Ontario Legislature, there were several large protests and near-riots. In 1998, much negative sentiment for Harris was expressed by elementary school students during the "Mandela and the Children" event at SkyDome when he was greeted with enthusiastic booing. Amid a the general rise in the North American economy, economic indicators in Ontario improved dramatically, and while the Ontario provincial budget was still in deficit by the end of Harris' first term, he was able to portray himself as responsible on fiscal issues.

In 1999, the Harris government was re-elected, largely by its political base in the 905 area. More controversies arose in 2000, when the town water supply of Walkerton became infected by E. coli. Six people died and thousands became ill. It was later discovered the local official responsible for water quality, Stan Koebel, had lied, falsified records, failed to test water quality regularly and when the outbreak occurred had failed to promptly notify the local Medical Officer of Health. In late 2004, Koebel pled guilty to a minor charge in relation to the offence and was sentenced to one year in jail.

The Walkerton tragedy had serious ramifications for Harris's government. Strictly speaking, it is unlikely that his policies, or those of any other Premier, were directly responsible for the tragedy. David Peterson later acknowledged that it could have happened under any Premier's watch, and it was often noted Koebel's lying and falsification of records had gone unnoticed by governments of different political stripes. Harris's critics, however, argued that his cuts to inspection services had created a situation in which future water safety could not be guaranteed. Harris's handling of the tragedy was also criticized, as he initially attempted to place some of the blame on previous Liberal and NDP governments.

Perhaps most seriously, there were also concerns raised that the Harris government's privatization policies had contributed to the tragedy. A private-sector lab had actually identified the presence of the deadly contaminant prior to the outbreak, but its findings were proprietary and thus only the subscribing utilities had access to the information. As such, only Stan Koebel had authorized access to the findings, and he had a personal profit motive for keeping the results secret. Had water testing remained a public concern in the region, the lab would have been obliged to contact public health authorities about the threat. Thus, Harris' opponents contended, his government's reckless privatization broke a basic responsibility to the public good which could have averted the disaster. The report of a public inquiry later noted the government had been given advance warning that the privatization of water testing labs could jeopardize public health and safety.

Harris's government temporarily balanced the provincial budget, although its critics contend that cuts in taxes caused a drop in revenues, which in turn led to renewed budget deficits after Harris resigned. Harris' government reduced Ontario welfare rolls by 500,000 people; critics contend these cuts led to a rise in homelessness and poverty. Although employment rates increased during the late 1990s, many of the new jobs were part-time rather than full-time, and offered fewer benefits to employees.

The government also rewrote labour laws to make it more difficult for workplaces to unionize and make it easier for management to hire "replacement workers" during strikes. They also made it easier for employers to require their workers put in more hours without being paid overtime wages.

Other changes brought in by the Harris government include standardized student tests. These were criticized by educators as forcing schools to teach in a manner simply oriented to test-passing, and not teach in a way to encourage genuine learning. A new provincial funding formula for school boards stripped the local boards of their taxation powers, which has been criticized for leading to school closures and crippled school services.

In 2001, the Harris government introduced a plan to give a tax credit for parents who send their children to private and denominational schools (despite having campaigned against this in 1999). Many believe that this issue damaged the party's reputation for supporting "ordinary Ontarians".

Harris also broke with tradition to place backbench MPPs on Cabinet committees. Interestingly, he appointed more women as deputy ministers than any other premier in Ontario history, including the only two women to head the Ontario public service.

During his tenure, a number of his close aides such as Jaime Watt, Deb Hutton, Tom Long and Paul Rhodes benfitted from millions of dollars in untendered contracts with government agencies, particularly Hydro One, which operates the province's electricity grid. This resulted in a major scandal for the party when the details of these arrangements were revealed in late 2003 (i.e., just after the Tories were removed from office).

For personal reasons and declining public approval ratings, Harris resigned in 2002 and was succeeded as Tory leader and premier by his long-time friend and Minister of Finance, Ernie Eves.

Later in 2002, Harris joined the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank, as a 'Senior Fellow'. In January of 2003 Harris was named to the Board of Directors of Magna International.

During his time as Premier, Harris was frequently cited as someone who could "unite the right" in Canada, and lead a merged party of federal Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Canadian Alliance supporters. He made serious steps toward a career in federal politics after stepping down as Premier, weighing in on issues such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which he supported) and the value of the Canadian dollar (which he wanted to see increase in relation to the American dollar). In late 2003, he made a speech in Halifax which many believed was the unofficial launch of a campaign to lead the new Conservative Party of Canada. Within weeks, however, he unexpectedly announced his decision to drop out of the race.

Many believe that heightened media attention on Harris's private life was the reason for his decision. He had recently separated from his wife a second time and was in a relationship with Laura Maguire, the ex-wife of hockey player and referee Kevin Maguire. It was alleged, through court documents relating to a custody battle, that Laura had spent lavishly and neglected her three children while dating Harris. Faced with this negative publicity, Harris decided to stand aside; he later endorsed former Magna International President and CEO Belinda Stronach, in the 2004 Conservative Party of Canada leadership election.

He was later involved in another minor controversy after yelling and repeatedly swearing at a provincial party official who had asked him for proof of identity as he attempted to vote in the 2004 Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership election.

In this leadership race, the party chose John Tory as its leader. While Tory is seen as a "Red Tory" and his selection a move away from the Harris legacy, 46% of leadership voters supported the staunchly conservative Jim Flaherty on the final ballot, suggesting a considerable divide in the party.

Family life

Harris has been married three times: first to Mary Alyce Coward, next to Janet Harrison, and currently (as of June 11, 2005) to Laura Maguire.

After his divorce to Janet he was seen in a relationship with socialite Sharon Dunn, which later also ended.

He has two sons, Mike jr. and Jeffrey.

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