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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Common Sense and Hookers. How Mike Harris Stole my Vote

A CULTURE OF DEFIANCE: History of the Reform-Conservative Party of Canada

I came across something the other day, that I hadn't realized I had kept. (I really having to start throwing stuff away)

It was a videotape with a white cardboard cover, and the dire warning to 'View Before June 8' [1995]; the [former Ontario premier] Mike Harris's campaign video when he was flogging his so-called Common Sense Revolution.

So I popped it in the VCR last night, in an attempt to understand what drove me to vote for this party through their local candidate Bill Vancoughnet. And I realized that it was as much about the language used to sell it, as the product.

The art of ambiguity helped to mask their true intent.

Mind you at the time, few Canadians understood the concept of neoconservatism, so we trusted the basic good of the Canadian identity, not realizing that much of this campaign was imported from the United States.

The two key elements that were hammered out by Vancoughnet and Harris on the tape, were taxes and the reduction of government waste. They promised four billion dollars in "tax rebates", a much better choice of words than "tax reduction", since they imply a cheque in the mail.

They also promised to "eliminate the barriers to job creation" - the removal of environmental restrictions.

"Cut the size of government by involving the private sector" - costly and service reducing privatization

"Arms length involvement by eliminating red tape" - the removal of health and safety concerns.

Welfare Reform

In 1975, Andrew Armitage wrote one of the first comprehensive books on Canada's social welfare system, and he stated that the way that Canadians view welfare or social assistance, is not with an eye to eliminating it, only to making it fairer.

He said that it had to be about not simply a transfer of funds, but an "exchange". That is why we liked Harris's notion of Workfare. The able bodied expected to pull their weight.

But the way this was presented to Ontarians was fundamentally flawed, and yet Harris was able to sell it not only to the working class, but to those receiving assistance.

He sold it to the first group as getting "those lazy bums off the couch", and to the latter, as finding them jobs. But what we got instead was one of the most vile attacks on struggling citizens in modern history.

They cut the welfare rolls in half and drastically reduced benefits. The McGuinty government has attempted to raise the rates since then, but they are still far below pre-1995 levels. Thousands of people were thrown into the streets as a result, many freezing to death in their cars or in allies. The use of food banks rose and for many it was a return to depression era conditions.

And the promised jobs never materialized. Those on assistance were told they had to work, but also had to find their own employment in an already overstretched job market.

But a handful of people got filthy rich. A neoconservative success story.

Transfers and Exchange

The Harrisites were able to find willing accomplices to their inhumane policies because of stories. We all knew some.

Like the cab drivers who told of welfare recipients using their taxi chits to have them deliver cigarettes. Or the single moms with eight kids receiving thousands of dollars a month. Or welfare cheques going for booze or drugs.

The stories were true but not as common as we were led to believe.

I recently spoke with a woman who has worked in the system for three decades. She remembers the Harris era well and said that she can't remember a day during that time, when she didn't feel sad. Many of her clients were axed and she worried about what became of them, fearing the worst.

And as to the lazy "welfare bums", she told me that most of her clients wanted to work and hated having to accept what they thought of as "charity".

But we allowed a few "cheats" to define the entire system, and few raised a hand to stop "Chainsaw Mike" (those who did felt that wrath of the "Riot Police", a common view in Harrisland).

So maybe it's time to tap into the notion of "transfer and exchange". What are we getting from our government in exchange for the enormous amounts of our money we entrust them with?

In Ontario back in the day, we entrusted John Baird with millions to fix the welfare problem. In exchange we got a boondoggle computer system that never worked, and a contract with Anderson Consulting of Enron fame, who charged us 4 to 1, what the job would have cost using a civil servant.

In exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects, transferred to the Harris government, we got signs, glossy pamphlets and self-promotion advertising. In other words, taxpayers funded his re-election campaign.

And yet we transferred the same hundreds of millions of dollars to the Harper government, for the same signs, pamphlets and self-promotion advertising.

We have also transferred billions to the war in Afghanistan and have no idea what we got in exchange. Or maybe we do. A request for more billions.

Ontarians were lured into complicity, because the Harris government focused on the cheats. Yet any system involving money is always open to exploitation.

And that also includes John Baird billing us $61,000 for his vacation to Bali (since he did nothing to address climate change), or Tony Clement $11,000 to deliver a cheque that he could have mailed. Or Christian Paradis presenting a claim of $5,000 for an $800 coat.

Cheats are cheats.

We will now be transferring more funds for an extension of stimulus money, and what will we get in exchange? Nobody knows because nobody asks. Tom Walkom believes it is to help pay for Stephen Harper's election campaign, and has nothing to do with the jobs he's promising.

In fact, job figures are looking better, simply because many out of work Canadians are simply giving up. In exchange for this transfer of funds we should demand that the money go to areas hardest hit by unemployment, but we know it won't. It's going to the 905 in an attempt to buy 10 seats.

In the United States the Republicans have blocked plans to cancel further tax cuts for the richest Americans, while the U.S. unemployment rate remains high and thousands are set to lose their benefits. What will the American people get in exchange for this enormous transfer of funds from the working class to the ultra-rich?

What will Canadians get for the enormous transfer of our tax dollars to the ultra-rich (60 billion in total come January)? An abstract promise of job creation.

But a handful of people will get filthy rich. Another neoconservative success story.


Another man appearing on the tape was Mark Mullins, referred to simply as an economist. He said that he had reviewed the Harris plan and confirmed that it would create 725,000 jobs.

Mullins went on to become an advisor for the Alliance Party and CEO of the Fraser Institute.

Bill Vancoughnet would be forced out of politics for soliciting an undercover cop in Toronto. The charges were dropped on the promise of his attending 'John' school.

Mike Harris's lap dog, Tim Hudak, husband of the infamous Debbie Hutton (Harris's gate keeper), is now heading the PC Party in Ontario, hoping to be our next premier.

Another neoconservative success story.

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