Running as a Conservative, Harris handily defeated the Liberal incumbent in Nipissing in the 1981 provincial general election. He briefly entered the Frank Miller Cabinet in 1985 as Minister of Natural Resources and Energy before the unexpected ouster of the Tories by the Liberals of David Peterson later that year. In Opposition, Harris was named his party's house leader and was critic responsible for revenue, labour, housing, finance and northern development.
Harris was elected leader of the provincial Conservatives on 12 May 1990, and fought his first election as party chief the same year on a platform of spending restraint and leaner government. The Conservatives gained seats but remained the third party in the legislature. In the run-up to the 1995 election, Harris unveiled his "Common Sense Revolution," which emphasized lower taxes and less government; education, health and welfare reform; job creation; and a balanced budget within four years. When the campaign opened, he was well behind the Liberals who were leading in the polls. But as others floundered, Harris surged and won a stunning victory with 82 seats out of 130.
Harris was sworn in as premier of Ontario on 26 June 1995 and immediately launched his conservative agenda. He cut income taxes by 30% over three years, closed hospitals, shifted welfare responsibilities to the local governments, cut education spending, repealed labour laws and began a program of urban amalgamation by forcing together an immense Greater Toronto. Under Harris, Ontario retreated from its traditional role as a national unifier and relations between Ottawa and Ontario sank to a low point. These policies, accompanied by the premier's blunt denunciation of his adversaries, created strong opposition, particularly in the fall 1997 teachers' strike, the largest in Canadian history. Indeed, when Harris called the provincial election on 5 May 1999, his party was behind the Liberals in the polls. But after an election campaign notable for its historically short lead-up and for the protesters who dogged his path, Harris was re-elected on 3 June 1999, the first Ontario premier to win back-to-back majorities since 1967. His party won 59 seats in the reduced 103-seat legislature, with the Liberals at 35 seats and the New Democrats at 9.
Harris's second term in office lacked the dynamism of the first, and the premier resigned before its end: the personal fire often seemed muted; there were much-publicized problems in his marriage; and public support declined. The malaise of the period and the mounting criticism of spending cuts and the downloading of government services was reflected in, and symbolized by, the tragic contamination of the water supply in the small southern Ontario town of WALKERTON, leading to the death of seven people and the illness of another 2300 in the spring of 1999. An inquiry into the causes under Justice Dennis O'Connor specifically faulted Harris's 1996 discontinuation of government laboratory testing services without countervailing action to ensure that provincial authorities received early notice of trouble. O'Connor added that budget reductions at the Ontario ministry of the Environment made it less likely that improper practices in the Walkerton public utilities commission would be caught and corrected.
Harris, whose phlegmatic exterior concealed a determined toughness and a quick temper, summarized his populist political philosophy in a series of interviews and speeches during his final days as premier. A political leader must be a "challenger in chief," revisiting every preconceived notion and vaulting bold action over "wishy-washy" consensus. He left office, concluded John Ibbitson, the closest student of the Harris premiership, simply because he ran out of things to oppose. Ernie EVES replaced Harris as premier on 15 April 2002.
Author NORMAN HILLMER
Links to Other Sites
Michael Harris, Senior Fellow
A brief profile of Michael Harris, former premier of Ontario. From the Fraser Institute website.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...