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The phrase Common Sense Revolution (CSR) has been used as a political slogan to describe common sense conservative platforms in Australia and the U.S.marker state of New Jerseymarker in the 1990s. Based on the Singapore Model of economics, its main goal is to reduce taxes while balancing the budget by reducing the size and role of government. However, it is most widely known as the name of the political movement and policy document advocated by Mike Harris, the Progressive Conservative premier of the Canadianmarker province of Ontariomarker from 1995 to 2002. This article deals with the "Common Sense Revolution" as it was in Ontario under the Harris government.


From 1943 to 1985, the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party held uninterrupted power in Ontario, under Red Tory premiers such as Leslie Frost, John Robarts, and Bill Davis. However, in 1985, this veritable political dynasty (termed the Big Blue Machine by observers) came to an end when the government of Davis' successor, Frank Miller, was defeated by an alliance between the Liberal Party of David Peterson and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) of Bob Rae in that year's provincial election. The Liberals formed a minority government with NDP support, and Peterson was sworn in as premier.

After the fall of Miller's government, the PC Party found itself in the political wilderness. Known for decades as competent managers with a left-leaning tendency towards building up Ontario social programs (such as health care and education), they found themselves losing this ground to the Liberals and their youthful leader, Peterson. Sticking to their policy status quo, the party was trounced in the 1987 election that gave Peterson a majority government. Faced with massive debt and public disinterest in their leader and policies, the party needed a new angle. In 1990, an upstart junior cabinet minister from Miller's former government named Mike Harris won the leadership of the party. This was widely interpreted as a move to the political right, as Harris defeated the more centrist Dianne Cunningham.

Harris immediately set about crafting a new image for himself and the party. In his first election in 1990, he branded himself "the tax fighter." Despite his party's third place showing in the election (which was won by NDP leader Bob Rae), Harris had managed to improve the party standing in the legislature and bring some attention to his cause. After the 1990 election, Harris and his advisors (including prominent Ontario Tories Tony Clement, then President of the party, Leslie Noble, Alister Campbell and Tom Long) set to work creating a more comprehensive reform package to present to the province. The result was the CSR.


The CSR reform package was markedly neo-liberal in nature, closely mirroring the platforms of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. Philosophically it was aligned with the theories of prominent 20th century economist and political theorist Friedrich A. von Hayek. In fact, during Harris' time in office, political staff at Queen's Parkmarker — the provincial seat of government — were known to keep copies of Hayek's seminal work The Road to Serfdom on hand in their offices.

The central foci of the CSR were tax reduction, balancing the budget, reducing the size and role of government, and an emphasis on individual economic responsibility (often summarized by an opposition to government hand-outs). Among other things Harris promised to reduce personal income tax rates by 30% and balance the provincial budget at the same time (which had reached a record $10 billion deficit under the NDP). It is interesting to note that when the Harris/Eves era ended they left an operating deficit of over $5 billion.

The CSR was specifically tailored as a reform document. It was presented as a radical change to the status quo of provincial government business, which was widely seen to be poorly managed and inefficient. Indeed, the opening words of the document were "The people of Ontario have a message for their politicians — government isn't working anymore. The system is broken."

1995 Election and its impact

When Bob Rae called the 1995 election, most political commentators were sure that Liberal leader Lyn McLeod would end up taking the premier's job. However, this prediction proved rather premature.

Sticking to the contents of the CSR, Harris fought a campaign focused on simple, easily communicated messages. Specifically, he consistently hammered home the party's promises to lower taxes and reduce the number of people on welfare (Ontario's social assistance program). The turning point in the election is often considered to be Harris' performance in the televised leader's debate. Rather than get caught up in the debate between McLeod and Rae, Harris used his camera time to speak directly to the camera to convey CSR points, virtually ignoring all questions asked of him by his opponents. Another major contributing factor was a powerful and focussed advertising campaign which stuck to 3 key policy elements - "Work for Welfare, Scrap the Quota Law (Affirmative Action) and Tax Cuts for Jobs - Common Sense for a Change". As a result, Harris and the PC's won a strong majority government in the election as the PCs took 82 of the province's 130 seats.

A signature element of the Mike Harris record was his commitment to do "exactly what I say I will do". And in fact, notwithstanding substantial controversy regarding several key components of the Common Sense Revolution platform, Harris went on to implement the platform almost in its entirety. Over several years, income taxes were cut as much as 30%. Spending discipline and cuts in "low priority areas" allowed government spending to be constrained with the exception of health care, where government spending rose overall to counter rising costs and federal cuts; later Harris would cut some funding, causing waiting times for health care procedures to rise. And dramatic welfare reforms (including reductions in welfare payments to 'able-bodied citizens') contributed to a reduction of welfare consumption in Ontario. With economic growth in North America generally strong, Ontario over the next 5 years outperformed every Canadian province except oil-rich Alberta, every US State and in fact, every OECD nation. This strong growth, (which supporters say is at least in part likely correlated with the favourable economic impact of cuts in marginal tax rates) allowed Harris to eliminate for a while the $11 billion annual deficit he had inherited from previous Premiers David Peterson and Bob Rae. Although the provincial budget was indeed balanced for the last several years of Harris's own time in office, his successor and former deputy Ernie Eves left office with a $5 billion deficit. The incoming Liberal government and some commentators attributed much of that deficit to Harris's policies, especially his large-scale tax cuts.

Bill 103

Harris' interest in reforming the political structure of cities dated back to his time in opposition. While the leader of the third party, he created the "Mike Harris Task Force on Bringing Common Sense to Metro" (Toronto), on January 5, 1995. This in many ways was designed to counter Premier Bob Rae's government Task Force on the Greater Toronto Area, chaired by Anne Golden. When the final report (called the 'Golden Report') was released in 1996, it called for a GTA-tier of local government and for inter-municipal service agencies (based on a similar model to that of Metro Toronto government).

The net effect of this proposal was that it countered the Mike Harris pledge of "less government." The creation of a larger organizing body for the region ran counter to his party's advocacy of smaller government. Harris had felt that politicians, in particular lower level city councillors, were problematic to his party, and prevented free enterprise. The plan for reduced government might have emulated Margaret Thatcher's approach that eliminated upper-tier city governments, replacing them with a collection of special-purpose bodies. See Greater London Council.

While many suburban municipalities grew rapidly during Harris' first term (1995-1999), some have argued that the net effect of many CSR policies was to transfer wealth from urban to suburban areas and to refocus services to commuters and suburbs. In a highly controversial move, the former city of Torontomarker was merged with the five surrounding cities of Metropolitan Toronto to form a new single-tier "megacity" (a term coined by the local media). The Harris government saw the megacity as a cost-cutting measure, while Urbanist argued that cities of 750,000 or less were an optimal size for service delivery. The fact that the merger took place in Toronto, a region that had not voted for that many Conservative MPPs, further polarized the debate on the merit of the merger. Many non-Conservative Party voters felt like they were being punished for not supporting the Harris government. Some municipalities, particularly Toronto, also complained that the government was "downloading" the costs of services that the province had formerly paid for onto local city and municipal governments.

Long before the merger, in October 1996, a focus group conducted by Angus Reid for the government warned Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach that there would be "considerable public resistance" to the creation of a unified Toronto. Leach would go on to blame local mayors and community groups for the opposition, going on to be quoted in the same article as saying: "In the end, it became a cause célèbre for all of the issues that the government was bringing forward on its agenda".

One of the loudest opponents to the new city was former Toronto mayor John Sewell who led the action group Citizens for Local Democracy.

In April 1997 the government introduced Bill 103 (City of Toronto Act). The Ontario New Democratic Party filibustered the legislation by proposing a series of amendments, each of which required the government to consult the residents of a specific street in the city before implementing the amalgamation. One street, Cafon Court in Etobicokemarker, had its amendment successfully passed when the number of Tory MPPs actually present in the legislative chamber briefly dropped below the number of NDP members , although the Tories later voted to strike the Cafon amendment.

The round-the-clock fight at Queen's Park lasted 10 days before the legislation was finally passed on April 21. On January 1, 1998, the new single-tier City of Toronto came into existence, superseding the former two-tier structure of Metropolitan Toronto, and the constituent cities of Toronto, York, North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough and the Borough of East York.

Other controversial municipal amalgamations took place during Harris' second term, including in Ottawamarker, Hamiltonmarker, Greater Sudburymarker and Kawartha Lakesmarker. Unlike the Toronto amalgamation, however, these all involved large rural areas in addition to the primary urban core. Controversy over the amalgamations remains a significant political issue in some of these cities as of 2009.


Attempting to build on the success of the CSR content and messaging strategy for the 1999 election, Harris and the Ontario Tories branded their new policy document the Blueprint. (Blue being the official colour of the party).

The Blueprint followed the same theoretical framework as its predecessor, yet was tempered for a much different political environment. In 1995 the message had been "reform" and "revolution", but after four years of conservative government, the message became a balance between stability and emphasizing that there was still "much left to do".

Though not as successful as the CSR, the Blueprint nonetheless earned Harris re-election with another majority government (defeating new Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty).

Harris resigned as premier in 2002, and was succeeded by Ernie Eves. Through a variety of factors, including dissatisfaction with the effects of the government's platform policies, deterioration of municipal services after downloading, the Walkerton Tragedy and Eves' handling of the Northeast Blackout, the Progressive Conservatives were defeated in the 2003 provincial election by Dalton McGuinty.


Opponents of Harris see the CSR in a much more negative light - attributing the deterioration of social programs to its tenets. They perceive Eves' defeat to be a rejection of 8 years of conservative rule under CSR policies, and of cities being ruled by their suburbs. Furthermore, they point to the sellout of Highway 407 and that the Conservatives still left Ontario with a monetary deficit of at least $5 billion, undermining one of the key rationales for the CSR.

What is agreed upon by both its supporters and opponents is that the CSR resulted in far-reaching changes in the provincial government. Some have even argued that the impact of the CSR approach was so profound as to actually cause a right-ward shift in Ontario's political culture. An example of this shift can be seen in the contemporary dialogue used by political leaders of all parties in the province.

Today, the CSR themes of keeping taxes low, budgets balanced and people off social assistance are used by even the Conservatives' opponents. In fact, a key plank in the McGuinty Liberals' platform in their 2003 election victory was to criticize Eves for failing to ensure a balanced budget, and promising to do so themselves, while holding the line on provincial taxes (a promise they later broke after finding a hidden $5 billion dollar deficit left by the Conservatives).

On the cities front, some have argued that one effect of the CSR was a process of suburban colonization brought about by the province transferring tax funds to suburbs at the same time as removing them from the urban core.

The most recent Conservative leader John Tory, himself from Toronto and a contender for the mayor's job there in 2003 (losing to David Miller), had called for a return to the "Red Tory" tradition of Bill Davis and his moderate centrist governance approach of the 1970s. However, that failed to gain any traction.

See also


  2. Excellent sources for this are Promised Land by John Ibbitson and Right Turn by Christina Blizzard
  3. Ontario 2004 Budget Papers p69 Table A1
  4. "Leach blames mayors". Toronto Star, May 9, 1997.
  5. "The Filibuster Worked: Protest buoyed opposition for fights to come", John Sewell, NOW, April 17, 1997.

External links

  • Text of the CSR
  • Canadian Journal of Regional Science - "Amalgamations, Service Realignment, and Property Taxes: Did the Harris Government Have a Plan for Ontario's Municipalities?"
  • - The Common (Non)Sense Revolution: The Decline of Progress and Democracy in Ontario ISBN 0-9730682-0-5

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