Attack of the SupposiTories: Neo-Conservatism in Ontario
Issue #36, February 1998
Six years ago, just having moved from Portland, Oregon to Toronto, I was asked by my landlord, "Why would you possibly want to move from the US to Canada? I would give anything to live in the States. Name one thing that is cheaper here than in the US."
Without batting an eyelid, I said, "Education." After all, the most obvious reason why I had moved was to pursue graduate study. And I had already gleaned that questioning such consumerist criteria for where one would want to live would have no success with a guy who was hoping that my rent would pay his mortgage on a house he could not really afford.
"Name another," my landlord replied, not being satisfied that education was a legitimate consumer product. As an MBA student, he seemed sure that education was an illegitimate answer, not really a commodity (oh, how I wish all the university administrators and the government agreed with him).
Given half a second pause, I replied, "Health care."
This response was even less acceptable than my first. "Well, is it really cheaper?" he replied. "I mean we pay a lot of taxes and if you do not get sick, you do not need healthcare." Sounded like the MBA's version of the first year philosophy student's question 'if a tree falls in the forest but no one is there to hear it?' — How expensive is a car, if you do not buy it? Rejecting this water-tight logic, I've stayed in Ontario.
But even these few "consumer advantages" have been eroded by a right-wing Tory onslaught that began in June 1995. Ironically enough, many of those who voted for Mike Harris and his "Progressive Conservatives" (if that's not a contradiction in terms, I'm not sure what is) hold a similar mindset to my old landlord. But by his logic, we would all move to the US where things are cheap. I feel silly pointing out that the graduate education that drew me here, at least at least in part, is now effectively almost three times as expensive as in 1991. The other changes since the election of the Tory provincial government have had far more devastating effects. Despite the economists' continued celebration of 'our' economic recovery (which 'factors out' the continued high level of unemployment, a definite disadvantage to the personal economy of the un-and under-employed), the quality of life for most people is getting worse on many accounts. If there is a silver lining, and I'm not sure there is, it is seeing people who previously considered themselves apolitical, becoming downright militant. The best example of this is the Ontario teachers, but even the 'taxpayers' (or people who primarily identify as such) are becoming politically conscious.
The most recent atrocity has been the passing of Bill 160 despite a two week province-wide teachers' strike, the largest teachers' strike in North America. The strike was a protest of how this bill 'restructures' education in a way that strips the power from school boards, giving it to the provincial government. It lengthens the school year for students and cuts down on the amount of preparation time for teachers. The cynicism of the government's position came through clearly in the way they relied on public ignorance in their publicity campaign. Bill 160, they told us, would make teachers spend more time in the classroom. We were supposed to interpret this to mean that our children would have more time with teachers and get better instruction. Of course, it was not difficult to see through the rhetoric and realize that it really meant that fewer teachers were going to do the same amount of teaching. Thus, it allowed the government to lay-off thousands of teachers. The government paid no attention to the high levels of popular support for the teachers, especially among the parents. Even the Globe and Mail admitted that the teachers "won the war over public opinion."
Yet, the Tories did not even extend the consultation process or make any real changes in the bill. Even after a leaked document made it very clear that they plan to save $667 million in the 1998-99 education budget, they continue to insist that the bill's intentions are to improve education and have little to do with saving money. Presumably, they assume that our memories are so short, we will forget this blatant disregard for public opinion by the next election. Or, more likely, they know that these actions are totally in keeping with the odd contradictions that have arisen with the neo-conservative agendas across North America. The present political climate enables them to be straight-faced as they use anti-democratic methods to force their morals-based picture of the world on everyone in the name of fiscal necessity.
The television commercials (paid for by our ever-so-precious tax dollars that are supposedly the rationale for much of this devastation) revealed to what extent the government assumed that the public was totally ill-informed. All the newspapers and media were highlighting that the rank-and-file members were holding strong and supported the strike. The leadership of the five teachers unions was more wary. They felt (to varying degrees) that after two weeks of having totally ignored the strike, it was unrealistic to think the Conservative government would budge from their entrenched position. This was why the union leadership called off the strike. But the government-sponsored ads were using the usual rhetoric of how those all powerful 'union bosses' are the only ones resisting such sensible legislation.
The teachers' strike was not, strictly speaking, a labour strike. The school boards, technically the teachers' employers, were on the teachers' side. The Tories wanted to label this an illegal strike and use the courts to force the teachers back to work. But the government could not get standing in the courts since none of the school boards would lead a court challenge. So the fact that according to the teachers' contracts they were not in a strike position, could not be used to force them back to work. It did mean that they could not get strike pay. So not only were the teachers supporting the strike, they were doing so while getting no pay whatsoever. They were not protesting as workers against their employers, but as outraged political actors fed up with the policies of the government.
Teachers in Ontario have not had a history of militancy by any stretch of the imagination. And this new political commitment was fostered by a series of 'General Strikes' or 'Days of Action' organized by labour and activist organizations that rotated in cities throughout Ontario in the previous year. I remember being at one of these strikes, being surrounded by banners of the OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation) and they were singing 'Oh Canada.' What type of a protest song is 'Oh Canada'? But of course, these were teachers in the process of becoming political. Part of this process is not knowing what songs to sing. Of course, you have to pick a song that everyone knows the words to. And in lieu of songs sheets for the 'Internationale,' 'Oh Canada' would have to suffice. By the time of the teachers' strike, their commitment was truly inspiring and admirable. I didn't hear 'Oh Canada' from any of their picket lines this time around.
Neo-Conservatism in its Ontarian Form
This episode is just the latest in a whole stream of attacks on the quality of life in this province by the Tory government. Some of the Conservatives' new policies have been met by large and organized protests, while others have passed with less vocal opposition, but have also had harmful effects. Harris seems to revel in ignoring his opposition, and presenting a macho image of 'staying the course.' This reality is in stark contrast to the 'populist' platform that got him elected. While the Tories' popularity is falling, and there is evidence of contentions from the back-bench MPPs (Members of Provincial Parliament), we have to face the fact that this government was elected democratically, and is certainly not out of the running for the next provincial election.
What about this neo-conservative agenda is able to support an ideology based on 'populism' while implementing overtly anti-democratic reforms? In addition to Bill 160's clearly top-down authority structure that consolidates power in the provincial government instead of the more grass-roots and diffuse school boards (so much for 'smaller' government), the most controversial move of the Tories has been the consolidation of six municipalities around Toronto into one large 'mega-city.' Again, this seems to fly in the face of 'small,' accessible government. Whether or not this is a good decision from the perspective of effectively managing municipal services (it was pushed through so quickly that little research could actually be conducted on its impacts), it aroused a massive protest movement. Many were upset at the lack of consultation on the bill. Others were worried about the effect on municipal services, especially since the education and welfare budgets, previously under provincial jurisdiction, are being downloaded onto the municipalities of Ontario. But the most vocal opposition to the megacity, or those that got the most airtime, were people who were concerned that their taxes might go up. All this led to a plebiscite resulting in a clear 86% rejection of the proposal. But the vote was not legally binding and it didn't even slow the Tories down. That public opinion did not delay the megacity bill was made even more preposterous when the technicalities of adjusting boundaries made it impossible for them to push it through on schedule.
For me personally, it was a bizarre episode because I found myself protesting with people who politically identify as 'taxpayers.' While, as Bad Subjects has shown, 'identity politics' might incur various responses, people who identify politically as 'taxpayers' have missed all sides of the argument. The most vociferous advocates of 'identity politics' realize that you must have a better, more political identity than 'taxpayer.' The whole point is that you are different from others, not that you have become fixated on your tax dollar (forgetting that most people pay taxes). However much I'm uncomfortable with taxpayer 'activists' they are a crucial aspect of politics in Ontario. Even those who might seem most susceptible to the Harris 'Common Sense Revolution' were against the megacity. And they were marching in protests with me. Harris has managed not only to upset those groups who his election campaign was waged against, the poor, labour, women, etc. — but he has also been in political wrangles with the doctors, the business lobby, and the majority of parents in the province.
This might lead us to assume that Harris and his government are an odd aberration, a freak of the democratic system, which will be corrected with the next election. The fact that much of the election in 1995 revolved around Harris' promise of getting rid of photo-radar (the automatic camera system of ticketing speeders) would seem to support this perspective. The previous government had been the New Democratic Party (NDP) that had alienated the labour movement and many of its supporters with its Social Contract in order to feign fiscal responsibility. But, the surprising thing about the election was not that the NDP lost — that was a foregone conclusion. What was unexpected before the campaign was that the Liberals did not win. In the 1996 Federal election, all but one of the MPs elected from Ontario were Liberals. What took the Liberals and the NDP by surprise was that the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, with its new brand of neo-conservatism, much more like the Reform Party, was somehow appealing to so many Ontarians. As seen in the US with the rise of the religious right and its strength within the Republican Party, this brand of conservatism is not just fiscally based, but an odd combination of right-wing morality and populist frustration with the current system. In addition to photo-radar and the usual deficit discourse, Harris' other major platform position was workfare. He stated over and over that workfare was better than welfare even if it was more expensive. Workfare was not a fiscal policy but a moral one. And the morals that it is imposing are specifically right-wing and anti-democratic.
I do not want to overstate my point. Even if the Liberals had won the 1995 Ontario election, they would have implemented a slightly more tame version of a similar right-wing, deficit fighting agenda where the profits of banks and large corporations are to be valued above the actual quality of the lives of people. It probably would not have been as drastic and not caused quite as much suffering so quickly. But it would not have produced an entirely different situation. For the future, the success of 'booting the Tories' in the next provincial election will most likely be met by a Liberal Party that is struggling over the center-right. But the contradictions of this neo-conservative agenda are most apparent in their most extreme version in Mike Harris' government, implementing this agenda despite not being part of the status quo that fuels the Federal Liberal government.
The 1995 provincial election took us by surprise because small 'c' conservative, careful and traditional Ontario did not seem susceptible to the type of rash and extreme politics so rampant out in the wild west. In 1995, I was sufficiently worried about the right-wing slide of all the major political parties. Even the NDP seemed to be adopting the discourse of debt hysteria, trying to run governments as if they were businesses (which they are not). But I was not ready for the Harris 'Common Sense Revolution.' The 'Common Sense Revolution' capitalized on the fact that the voters were very disgruntled. They wanted someone who promised a 'revolution.' It did not matter that this 'revolution' did not get at the heart of what troubled them. After all, shortly thereafter, the Bank of Montreal mounted an advertising campaign with the slogan "A Bank can change, can you?" with the musical accompaniment of Bob Dylan's "The Times are a' changin.'" The voters who chose Harris did not see the irony that their discontent is rooted in the fact that capitalism can no longer deliver the life-style that we have grown accustomed to. Instead, this general discontent was mobilized by a 'Common Sense Revolution.' So-called 'keeping promises' and 'staying the difficult course', 'not caving into interest groups' was seen as the answer. I can only respond by quoting one of the more popular protest buttons being worn in Ontario since 1995, "If Harris is the answer, it must have been a stupid question." In order to capitalize on the discontent that late-capitalism is producing in Ontario, we need to start asking the smart questions.
Peter Ives is a Ph.D. candidate in the programme of Social and Political Thought at York University in Ontario, Canada. He is writing a dissertation entitled "Vernacular Matarialism: Antonio Gramsci and theTheory of Language." You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.