In the scramble to dampen rising poll numbers for Jack Layton and the NDP, Stephen Harper has sounded alarms for Ontario voters to avoid a repeat of the dreaded “Bob Rae legacy.” Being neither an Ontarian nor a particular fan of Bob Rae I won’t attempt to defend his record in government. From a distance it would appear mistakes were made, and the corporate owned press has relentlessly advertised them. (We need to remember that the corporate press will always view governance by a “left” party as a mistake no matter what they did.)
But when we look at the longer history of provincial governments and their records I think past NDP provincial governments in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Manitoba and even Ontario, compare very favorably with their Conservative counterparts.
As precursors of the federal Conservatives the legacies of Mike Harris in Ontario and Grant Devine, are particularly revealing. They illustrate the predictable character of a Harper majority. Like Harper, Devine and Harris were driven by a mix of right-wing “free market” ideology and deep hostility to community priorities and organized labour. Harris with his savage welfare cuts and attacks on teachers’ rights and the public school systems would easily outscore Bob Rae on a measure of most destructive government policies.
Like Harper, Grant Devine’s Saskatchewan regime had the contradiction of cutting social programs, like a school based universal dental plan, while recklessly overspending his budget. Divine left Saskatchewan with a staggering debt of $14 billion after two terms in office. Once they were swept to defeat in 1991 government members, including Cabinet ministers, were prosecuted and jailed for widespread misappropriation of public funds.
Harper’s government has already shown total disregard for rules of Parliament and the obligations of public financial accountability. His cabinet includes key players from the Mike Harris regime like Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement. I do think there are lessons and warnings from the experience of provincial governments. But the legacy of Bob Rae should be the lesser of our worries.
For all the contempt, manipulation and abuse over the last five years under Harper’s government it is reasonable to assume that he has been restrained somewhat by minority status. He would likely agree with that observation. If he gets a majority, like Mike Harris and Grant Devine enjoyed, he will predictably adopt their style and practices.