Few who have observed Mike Harris would describe him as inspirational, charismatic or visionary. The Ontario premier, who announced last week that he will step down as soon as his Progressive Conservative party chooses a successor, is a common, straightforward man of solid middle-class stock who takes pride in a no-nonsense, practical approach to problems. Yet, over a six-year tenure, he changed Canada’s most unchangeable province in a way it hadn’t experienced in five decades.

When Harris assumed office in 1995, his government inherited a $10-billion deficit and an electorate who believed their affairs had been badly mismanaged by Liberals and New Democrats for eight years. While voters were looking for little more than stability and good government, Harris had campaigned on a right-of-centre platform that included a pledge to keep every promise he made. In stark contrast to others who have made similar promises, he did precisely that.

His first four years were a whirlwind of radical measures designed to do nothing less than transform public institutions across Ontario. His Common Sense Revolution restructured health care, reorganized municipal
governments, overhauled education and reduced the size and activities of government. To the surprise of some and dismay of others, if the public did not warmly embrace either Harris or his revolution, it backed him over his many opponents in and outside the legislature, time after time.

For good or ill, by the end of his first term in 1999, the province had become Mike Harris’s Ontario. On the positive side, he must get credit for the unprecedented prosperity that made the province the consistent growth leader in the nation; for bringing order and balance to government finances; and for forcing the complacent to examine the operation and role of public institutions that had been slow to adapt to the realities of the late 20th century.

But there was also fallout from the unbridled pursuit of these ends. More and more, it became apparent that the prosperity was not being equally shared. Consequently, today we have more homelessness, poverty and want in the face of plenty than we have ever witnessed in our lifetimes. The inherent conflict generated by the zealous pursuit of his goals encouraged a form of social Darwinism that pitted one region and group against the other, ever certain of the justification of advancing its own interests, even if it was at the expense of the larger good.

Harris also cast a shadow beyond Ontario’s borders. His steadfast adherence to reducing spending and his early championing of tax reduction anchored an agenda of fiscal conservatives that infected all governments, at all levels, throughout the nation. Alberta’s Ralph Klein was making similar efforts, but he and his province alone would not have had this influence. By the end of the decade, every government in Canada was repeating the Harris mantra: “Governments must balance their books”

Harris also steered Ontario on a very different course in its relationship with Ottawa and the other provinces. For eight decades, Ontario’s place in Confederation had been to play the role of the nation builder and national conciliator. That meant putting the interests of the country ahead of any single part, while at the same time making every effort to accommodate Quebec’s aspirations and special needs — in short, behaving not like a region, but as a handmaiden to Ottawa in its mission to balance competing provincial interests. This was the legacy of former premiers George Drew, Leslie Frost, John Robarts and William Davis.

But in Harris, Ontario had a premier who forcefully advanced the province’s interests with Ottawa. He demanded more transfer payments for health care to cover the high costs of providing these services in Ontario. He questioned Nova Scotia’s right to receive full royalties for its offshore oil without altering its equalization payments from Ontario. And he rejected special status for Quebec, saying powers extended to one region must be available to all. This Ontario-first posture altered the balance of power in federal-provincial relations and blocked any new national initiatives that might require provincial co-operation or support.

Harris may have pursued an ideologically driven agenda, but he was never an ideologue himself. As a young backbencher, he had a mentor and friend in the late Larry Grossman, the reddest of Ontario’s Red Tories of the time. When Harris put forward many right-of-centre initiatives, it was because he sensed the population understood the perils of clinging to the status quo as the rest of the world changed. He also knew that the only way to garner acceptance for those tough measures was to argue for their necessity rather than their rightness. He had a common touch, typical of a common man. At his core, Harris is a pragmatist who understands that political longevity is predicated on common sense, and not revolution.