Commentary

Ontario Conservatives Provide Electoral Lesson

By Patrick Basham
October 14, 2003

In a powerful lesson for President Bush and other conservatives, Canada’s leading conservative government has committed political hara-kiri. The Oct. 2 provincial election in Ontario, the U.S.’s second largest trading partner, saw the Conservative Party thrown out of office in a major victory for the opposition Liberals. This election may foreshadow the fate of American politicians whose rhetoric favors smaller government but whose voting records expand big government.

The Ontario Conservatives’ electoral harm was self-inflicted. Both in terms of flawed policy and faulty political marketing, the party executed the same failed strategy pursued by the first President Bush, the one that made the electoral world safe for Clintonesque Third Way types.

Eighteen months ago, the party elected former Finance Minister Ernie Eves, a self-described “pragmatic centrist,” to succeed “small-c” conservative Premier Mike Harris, who stepped down after seven successful years governing Canada’s richest and most populous province.

Back in 1990, Harris took over a moribund third-ranked party that was conservative in name only. In a manner reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s leadership style, through conviction politics and astute political marketing the underestimated and widely derided Harris led his party from the political wilderness to a massive majority in the 1995 provincial election. Harris ousted the socialist New Democratic Party, whose astoundingly incompetent term in office was characterized by labor strife, bloated budgets and spiraling deficits.

Harris’s victory was built upon popular support for a set of policy prescriptions pressing for tax cuts, personal responsibility, and the shrinking of the welfare state — laid out in a much-publicized document known as the “Common Sense Revolution.” By the mid-1990s, Ontarians calculated that continuing deficit spending was a drag on both the economy and employment, and that a significant tax cut would stimulate economic growth and help Ontario compete with lower-tax U.S. border states.

Following this agenda, the Ontario economy hummed along and the provincial coffers swelled. Consequently, in 1999, Harris’s Conservatives were able to repeat their previous electoral feat. This constituted the first consecutive majority victories by any Ontario party in 28 years.

But Premier Eves explicitly ran away from what had worked for the Conservatives, both as an electoral and a governing strategy. Eves’s deputy premier proclaimed, “The Common Sense Revolution is over.” Eves, the pragmatist, postponed tax cuts, cancelled Harris’s plan to deregulate the province’s electricity market, and sought to appease the leftist teachers’ unions. If enacted, the Conservatives’ campaign platform would have widened the (once again) large provincial deficit.

In this vein, Eves returned Ontario to “Red Toryism” as a governing philosophy. The Red Tories, who dominated Canada’s conservative politics until a decade ago, are really just social democrats with a traditionalist bent. Most Canadian Red Tories make liberal Republicans appear to be paragons of libertarian virtue.

Powerful Red Tories in the Conservative Party pined for the good ol’ days of the “Big Blue Machine,” the moniker given to the cabal of party strategists who kept left-leaning Premier Bill Davis in office between 1971 and 1985. The Big Blue Machine’s winning strategy stressed accommodation with the social democratic policy agenda. Being in power for these Conservatives wasn’t about articulating conservative policy choices; it was about being in power. Period.

Critically, the Harris Government demonstrated not only that appeasement on taxes and spending was antithetical to good public policy but also that it was no longer good politics. Ontario voters reflected their pragmatism by voting for the Common Sense Revolution twice.

Eves abandoned this winning formula. Stunningly, the new Conservative premier deliberately chose a “Liberal Lite” posture when the Ontario electorate had the option of voting for the “real thing” in the form of Dalton McGuinty, the relatively telegenic, youthful Liberal leader.

Clearly, Eves never took his predecessor’s fiscal conservatism to heart. “The Conservatives,” noted columnist Terence Corcoran, “produced a hodge-podge of a program that had …many unconservative ideas.” Corcoran observed both the Liberals and Conservatives “riding down the same one-track railroad to more government, more spending, more taxes and the perpetual expansion of bureaucratic power.”

On Election Day, the Ontario Conservative party experienced electoral disaster because a pro-small government stance, which rallied voters to Harris’ leadership, was absent from Eves’s plan. Today, the purportedly pragmatic Conservatives fittingly find themselves both visionless and powerless.

Our allegedly conservative president is wagering his reelection on spending increases, steel tariffs, and government-friendly education legislation. If influential White House advisor Karl Rove peers over the Ontario border, he may deduce that President Bush’s pragmatic domestic agenda could prove his electoral undoing.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.