Credits: Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency
So who was the better premier of Ontario — Mike Harris or Dalton McGuinty?
With McGuinty now in his final days, the irony is the province’s three-term Liberal premier from 2003 to 2013 is sounding a lot like his two-term Conservative predecessor from 1995 to 2002.
Today, it’s McGuinty, who started out by billing himself as “the education premier”, who’s at war with the teacher unions, just as Harris was in his day.
McGuinty’s rhetoric defending his Bill 115, imposing contracts on teachers, freezing their salaries and cutting benefits, sounds a lot like Harris’ rhetoric back in 1997, defending his Bill 160, which took away the power of school boards to tax, introduced standardized testing and reduced teacher prep time.
Ironically, McGuinty, as Liberal opposition leader in 1997 vowed to walk on the picket line in support of teachers when they launched a two-week, province-wide strike against Harris’ bill.
Harris described that strike as “illegal,” just as McGuinty described the one-day strike public elementary school teachers had planned for last Friday, before it was cancelled when the Ontario Labour Relations Board agreed with McGuinty, hours before it was supposed to start.
In contrast, when Harris tried to obtain an injunction forcing teachers back into their classrooms in 1997, an Ontario judge denied the request.
The judge basically agreed with the teachers they were engaged in a political protest, rather than an illegal strike — the very argument the OLRB rejected from the elementary school teachers on Friday. He also ruled Harris had failed to prove the school year was in danger.
Harris won his only head-to-head election against McGuinty in 1999, winning a majority government, while McGuinty became official opposition leader.
Harris came into office in 1995 complaining about the deficit left by his predecessor, NDP premier Bob Rae.
McGuinty came into office in 2003 complaining about the deficit left by Harris and Ernie Eves, who succeeded Harris and was defeated by McGuinty.
Harris came into power promising to lower taxes, which he did.
McGuinty came into power promising not to raise taxes, a pledge he immediately broke.
Harris took on the province’s public sector unions, famously predicting that by the time he was done, every blade of grass at Queen’s Park would be trampled by protesters.
McGuinty promised to end Harris’ confrontations with civil servants, particularly the teachers’ unions, which he initially achieved by throwing our money at them.
Harris was widely criticized — especially by McGuinty — for his handling of the native protest at Ipperwash, which ended in the OPP shooting of Dudley George.
McGuinty was widely criticized for his handling of the native protest in Caledonia, including complaints from local residents that the OPP failed to enforce the law or protect the town.
Harris blew the privatization of Ontario Hydro, McGuinty blew the implementation of his Green Energy Act.
Harris was widely criticized for seven deaths and hundreds of illnesses resulting from E. coli-tainted water in Walkerton, including charges he contributed to the tragedy by slashing government oversight budgets.
While no deaths occurred, McGuinty was widely criticized for forcing industrial wind turbines on rural Ontario, with hundreds of affected residents claiming adverse health effects and charging the McGuinty government covered them up.
Harris amalgamated the City of Toronto, eliminating six municipal governments and creating the 45-member city council (initially 58 members) we have today.
McGuinty passed the City of Toronto Act, giving Toronto council new taxing powers, which then mayor David Miller used to impose a vehicle registration fee (since rescinded by Mayor Rob Ford) and land transfer tax (which Ford promised to rescind, but hasn’t).
As for who was the better premier, as a fiscal conservative, I’d vote for Harris. But that’s just me.
I suspect it’s an issue Ontarians will be debating for many years to come.