Alien Invasion: How the Harris Tories Mismanaged Ontario – COHEN (CSS)

COHEN, Ruth. Ed. Alien Invasion: How the Harris Tories Mismanaged Ontario. Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2001. 240p. Resenha de: GLASSFORD, Larry A. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.1, p., 2004.

When the Ontario PCs captured the provincial election of 1995, their platform was encapsulated in the suggestive slogan The Common Sense Revolution. A combination of anti-bureaucratic populism and economic neo-conservatism, it had been cobbled together in the early Nineties by a klatch of aggressive young backroom boys (and one girl) connected to the Tory leader, Mike Harris. To the surprise of some, and chagrin of many, the newly elected Conservative government proceeded to implement its revolution of program cutbacks, tax reductions and intra-governmental restructuring. Both the breakneck speed of implementation and a ham-handed insensitivity toward democratic process accounted for some of the widespread public opposition to the Harris government’s reforms. More to the point, however, was the accumulating impact of the legislated changes themselves.

Taken together the new policies were beginning to alter the fundamental nature of the Ontario political economy. Ruth Cohen’s edited collection of articles and speeches is entitled Alien Invasion because in her opinion, and that of many other Ontarians, the stridently neo-conservative tone of the Common Sense Revolution put it outside the boundaries of the province’s traditional political culture. Regardless of their political stripe and Ontario had experienced governments of NDP, Liberal and PC affiliation in the 15 years leading up to 1995 all Ontario administrations had subscribed to the view that the state could and would play a positive role in the lives of its citizens. As part of this vision, a mixed economy combining both private and public enterprise was widely seen as the Ontario norm. Political change, when it came, would be evolutionary and incremental, and preceded by meaningful consultation with all major interest groups. Not for nothing was the party which had ruled Ontario for most of the 20th century, and continuously from 1942-1985, named Progressive Conservative. The dialectic dialogue implicit in that apparent oxymoron of a title told the observer all one needed to know about Ontario’s political traditions.

Opponents of the Harris government drew comfort from the fact that Bob Rae’s New Democrats, and David Petersons’s Liberals, had both been turfed out by the voters after five years in office. To their shock and dismay, the Ontario PCs rose from the ashes of controversy, and won a new majority in 1999. Masters of media spin, and rolling in donated dough, the Harris team waged a clever campaign that exploited the divisions in the opposition ranks to turn 40 percent of the popular vote into 60 percent of the seats. Now they had four more years to entrench themselves and their ideas. Thoroughly alarmed, the forces opposed to the Common Sense Revolution feared for the very survival of their kinder, gentler vision of Ontario. This book is one result of that renewed resolve to drive the alien invaders out of the province, once and for all.

The editor of this collection is a retired teacher and activist in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. The OSSTF was among the most prominent of a wide range of organized interest groups arrayed against the Harris PCs. For two weeks in the fall of 1997, they and the other teacher unions shut down the province’s elementary and secondary schools in an historic walkout protesting against Bill 160, a law that drastically revamped public education in Ontario. Characteristically, the PC government stood firm and talked tough till it got its way, but the victory may have been pyrrhic. Subsequent polling revealed that the tide of public opinion began to turn against the Harris regime partway through the strike and, notwithstanding the miraculous but temporary PC comeback during the 1999 election campaign, they were never as strong with the public again.

Some of the items in this edited collection are real gems. The detailed transcript of the rookie Education Minister, John Snobelen, spouting his convoluted and sophomoric ideas of transformational change, is alone worth the price of this book. He seriously counselled the creation of an invented crisis in the field of education, all the better to guarantee the success of his radical restructuring plans. Another prize is the transcript of a speech by Ian Angell, a British academic, delivered sometime in the Nineties to the Association of Manufacturers and Exporters of Canada. Angell painted a vivid picture of the Brave New World of global capitalism with more than the usual candor. Those lucky enough to be in work will have to work harder, for more hours each week, for less pay, in less secure jobs, he declared. And they had damn well better be grateful. In contrast to lowly labour, the Alphas would be in global seventh heaven. We are free to exploit workers, he continued. Management can finally get its revenge and kill off those damn trade unions (p. 174).

Not all of the thirty-plus items achieve this level of interest. There are newspaper articles, pundit columns, investigative features, even internet items, all loosely united by their connection either to the aims and record of the Harris government, or to the broader theory of global capitalism. Unfortunately, the editing is sloppy in places, both in terms of undetected typos, and by the fact that many articles are both undated and unsourced. These are quibbles, however, for anyone eager to find the materials from which to build a coherent critique of the neo-con mantras of free enterprise, free markets, and no free lunch. Susan George’s A Short History of Neo-Liberalism (pp.184-193), and David C. Korten’s The Global Economy: Can It Be Fixed? (206-216) are particularly insightful. For those eager to translate words into actions, Jane Kelsey’s Tips On How to Oppose Corporate Rule (pp.217-221) provides a plethora of practical pointers for potential opponents of the New Right.

Although the title of this volume fingers the Harris PC government in Ontario as the villain, the articles in the second half of the book make it clear that the real adversary is a connected set of neo-liberal ideas articulated by a global network of influential and affluent disciples. It will not be stopped by a mere election defeat.

Larry A. Glassford – University of Windsor. Windsor, Ontario.

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