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January 3, 1999

The compleat works of Mike Harris

Part comedy, part tragedy, Will Shakespeare would have loved the CSR

  Friends, Romans, Ontarians, lend me your eyes. The old year has died a cold and hoary death. As we bid it a fond adieu, let us cast our minds back not just to 1998, but to the last 31/2 years of Tory rule.
 Forsooth, you weary travellers of the Common Sense Revolution (CSR), and mark well. Herewith I offer you the Compleat Works of Mike Harris in 1,400 words.
 Let us start where it began. It was a Midsummer Night's Dream for the Tories, when they swept to power in a startling election upset, that gave them 82 seats. Twenty days hence, the smallest cabinet in 30 years was sworn in - 19 members, including the premier.
 Etobicoke West MPP Chris Stockwell was furious at being left out in the cold, when Grade 10 dropout John Snobelen got the nod, and made his displeasure clear to the Tories. It's a decision Harris must rue to this day.
 Then The Tempest started. On July 21, Finance Minister Ernie Eves wielded the axe, slashing welfare rates by 20%, eliminating the NDP's Jobs Ontario program and deferring the Eglinton West subway extension.
 "The people of Ontario didn't send us here to wring our hands," said Harris.
 Two scandals hit the Tories in 1995. One stuck with them throughout their mandate, the other fizzled and was forgotten. Call it Two Gentlemen of Niagara, if you will. In one episode, then-Education Minister John Snobelen was caught on videotape explaining his scheme to "invent" a crisis in public education, in order to bring about change. It was a leak which has plagued the Tories and bedevilled efforts to reform education ever since.
 In the second incident, the Merchant of Pine Tree Lincoln Mercury, Al Palladini, was revealed to have a love child from an affair he'd had with a married woman.
 Palladini 'fessed up, was remorseful and, more significantly, showed that the quality of mercy was worth about $1,500 a month in support to the child, and he was forgiven.
 Meanwhile, in a small protest, Tory backbenchers bucked the wishes of Harris, and installed Al McLean as Speaker of the Legislature over Margaret Marland. This decision would have startling repercussions later.
 In December, an all-night pyjama party ground the hallowed halls of government to a halt as Liberal Alvin Curling refused to vote on the massive Omnibus Bill. Speaker McLean (who insisted on calling it the Ominous Bill) was stumped, leaving the House in legislative limbo and Curling, it is rumoured, urinating in a jar to stall proceedings.
 It now appears the Omnibus Bill, was Much Ado About Nothing. Firefighters claimed it would hamper their ability to fight fires and doctors claimed patients' health records would be an open book. The world would end when it was passed, we were told. None of that happened.
 The biggest news in the 1996 budget wasn't news at all. The Tories made the first of their promised cuts to personal income taxes. On July 1, taxpayers saw the first tax cut in almost a quarter of a century as the government implemented the first instalment of its 30% tax cut.
 The rest of the news that year wasn't so cheerful. First, there was Labour's Love Lost, by way of the OPSEU strike, which saw angry confrontations at the east door of the Legislature, as well as a near-riot in March as police and protesters clashed when MPPs returned to the House.
 Meanwhile, McLean was heading for his own star-crossed personal problems, not so much of the Romeo and Juliet kind. Lothario, perhaps. Then again, he cuts more of a Falstaff figure. Or the Fool. And there's no Fool like ... well, you know the rest.
 McLean was accused by a former worker in his office of sexual harassment. Sandi Thompson said McLean fired her for refusing to have sex with him. McLean steadfastly denied the allegations and maintained he never had sex with her. This nasty little piece of he-said/she-said, show-me-your-bellybutton mudslinging eventually resulted in a $600,000 package that saw the legislative assembly (i.e., taxpayers) paying her damages, as well as her lawyers and his lawyers.
 McLean resigned as Speaker in 1996 and was replaced by Chris Stockwell, who, like Banquo's Ghost, has managed to make life miserable for his government ever since, proving that Shakespeare was right when he avowed that it's better to have the camel urinating out of the tent than in.
 But on to 1997 - a year of teacher strikes, amalgamations, referendums, downloading, Who Does What? and a nine-day long megacity filibuster that tied the House in legislative knots as MPPs were forced to vote on endless amendments to the megacity bill.
 As well - et tu Brute! - Stockwell hog-tied the government when it came to getting out its message on the megacity by ruling it was inappropriate for the government to spend money selling changes before the legislation was passed.
 Meanwhile, after 40 years of study, commissions and reports, Bill 103 finally did away with Metro's six municipalities and turned them into one big city. On the school board side, Bill 104 rolled 129 school boards into 66 new "district boards" and slashed the number of trustees from 1,900 to 700. As well, it dumped the so-called "full-time" salaries for trustees, replacing them with honorariums.
 And then, of course, there was Bill 160. Again it now turns out to be Much Ado About Nothing, but at the time it ground schools to a halt as teachers across the province put down their chalk and took up picket signs to protest the government's education reform.
 It was all for naught, of course. The education reform package passed easily. Civilization did not end. All the horror stories about amalgamation of municipalities and school boards didn't happen. In the something-was-rotten-in-the-state-of-T.O. department, the new city is finding more savings due to amalgamation and the Toronto District School Board, after crying that the sky was falling, recently announced it had a budget surplus of $5 million.
 Yes, along the way, there has been a lot of tinkering with the legislation, but schools are still open. There are lights on at the firehalls and your garbage is still being picked up.
 Meanwhile, two Tories, Toni Skarica of Hamilton Wentworth and Oakville's Gary Carr, both voted against their own government on downloading. Skarica has since kissed and made up with Harris, and was recently appointed one of the province's crime czars, replacing Jim Brown, who came a cropper over comments that the Santa Claus parade was one of the busiest times for hookers in the city.
 Which brings us to 1998. There were the Dionnes, which turned out to be a $4-million All's Well that Ends Well. Curiously, Harris was blamed for events that happened 60 years ago, and for the fact the three surviving quintuplets were now living in poverty in Montreal. Fair enough, blame him for Ontario's welfare rates - but Quebec's?
 The most serious opposition came from Megacity's Hamlet - well, ham, at least - Mel Lastman, who managed to hold off tax reform in the city for five years. So if you're expecting your taxes to go down under MVA, blame Lastman when it doesn't happen.
 Then there are the Merry Midwives of Windsor and Kingston, (or should that be the very serious obstetricians) who caused a stir by delivering preemies of women from elsewhere in the province.
 There's bubble, bubble, toil and trouble brewing in smaller issues, such as workfare, which the unions oppose, and the abolition of Grade 13. Oh, sure, it sounds like a great idea. After all, it was the Liberals who actually did away with the fifth year of high school, but then didn't follow through. When the Tories announced plans to end Grade 13 in 1996, students entering Grade 9 in 1997 were supposed to be the first ones through a four-year high school program. That was deferred - twice. Now, students entering high school in 1999 will be the first in the shortened program.
 There's been rent control and MVA, Mr. Silly and Tuna Dave and the unfortunate identification of a young offender in a throne speech. There were a couple of cabinet shuffles, the downsizing of the Legislature from 130 to 103 MPPs, topless beaches and a bottomless well of indignation. But there have been no high-profile resignations and only a couple of embarrassments - so far.
 So gentle readers. A brave new year awaits. Into the breach, once more. And on to an election.

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