Mike's Legacy of Pain

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Let me start with a mystery: What accounts for big injections of public money into arts projects in Toronto — the museum, art gallery, opera etc. — by the Harris government?

The Harris Tories have scorned the city, amalgamated it against its will and let it decay like the garbage in its streets. As for the arts, Mike Harris never showed concern, yet this is where he chose to deposit his “legacy.”

Here’s a theory. Mike Harris, on the eve of leaving, realizes that devastation is not much of a legacy; something positive would be preferable. But why arts buildings?

It’s the best he can come up with, that will create something without undoing the damage done by his beloved Common Sense Revolution, without destroying the wreckage he wrought.

Was Mike Harris such a wrecker? Take his own press release describing his achievements. Let me recount the verbs: scrapping, eliminating, getting government out of, removing, repealing, reducing, ending, breaking, cracking down on.

At the very start, he attacked welfare rates, non-profit housing, daycare, support for fruit growers, Wheel-Trans, job equity, job programs for youth, pay-equity funding, labour-law changes, and fired 13,000 people.

Ontario now ranks last in spending for higher education among the provinces. And a study done for the government ranked it last in care at nursing homes among comparable places.

Then there are the actual fatalities connected to his watch: Walkerton, possibly Ipperwash, and the poor woman who died under house arrest for welfare fraud.

Was there nothing positive? What do his backers say?

Lorrie Goldstein of The Toronto Sun lists tax cuts, balanced budgets and a better economy. But the economy, most people believe, pretty much follows the United States economy. Tax cuts, unless you were rich, got eaten up by higher local property taxes to make up for the downloading and by new user fees. And balanced budgets are an odd abstraction to take satisfaction from. Besides, since September 11, they seem to have lost sacred status.

The real sources of satisfaction in the Harris years, I’d say, lay in inflicting punishment on the vulnerable and undeserving. The Harris press release talks about “a tough new curriculum” in the schools, “making parole a privilege not a right,” “a strict discipline facility for young offenders,” and “no-frills jails while Ottawa builds Club Feds.”

Mike Harris didn’t just get rid of nurses, he likened them to obsolete Hula-Hoop makers.

I think it would be wrong to underestimate the satisfactions that can be gained from laying some pain on others, especially in hard or confusing times.

Mike Harris was the ideal politician to mete out these rewards. I have never thought he was a true right-wing ideologue, like the zealots around him, but rather a guy with a nasty streak who was open to ideology. It’s been said that voters liked him because he did what he said — yet he didn’t.

He promised not to cut classroom funding and, by all accounts but his own, did so. The municipal amalgamations were promised nowhere. I’d say what voters responded to instead was a sense of authenticity; he really believed in and enjoyed the attacks on teachers or the poor.

It’s not that he did what he said, but that he was what he seemed. His personality suited destruction and anger. I don’t mean privately, I have no idea what he is like deep down. But as a public figure, he enjoyed bullying and picking fights.

There is a theory that the superb Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb started to decline not because he lost the skill to win games and retire batters, but because he lost the vicious speed to humiliate them as he struck them out, and needed that feeling to keep going. There, perhaps, lies a reason for the Harris departure.

The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, a big Harris fan, says he left “simply because he has run out of things to oppose.”

Let me say here that I am a big fan of what philosopher Herbert Marcuse called the power of negative thinking. Sappy optimism is a real pain, and happy faces are the worst. But, in politics, most destruction is done for the sake of creation. The left revolutionaries of the 20th century overthrew their social orders in order to implement their dream of socialism. In the West, dismantlers of the welfare state such as Brian Mulroney or Ronald Reagan could at least claim achievements such as the Canada-U.S. free-trade deal, or the end of the Cold War.

Mike Harris, perhaps uniquely, was about destroy and destroy some more.

Hence the arts projects. It can’t have been easy for a born wrecker like him. But at least he didn’t give the money to the artists themselves. They’ll continue underfunded and undervalued. He put it into bricks and mortar for the cultural mausoleums that serve, on the surface, the same rich folks who were the only ones to benefit substantially from his tax cuts.

We know the reality is different, lots of commoners go to the Royal Ontario Museum and the opera. But at least he avoided the appearance of social solidarity.

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