POLITICS
10/02/2011 06:00 EDT | Updated 12/02/2011 05:12 EST

Ontario Election 2011: Mike Harris Still A Presence In Ontario Politics

CP

TORONTO - He's been gone from politics and stayed largely out of public sight for almost a decade, yet former premier Mike Harris still casts a shadow across Ontario's political landscape.

Indeed, as the pace and rhetoric heated up ahead of the Oct. 6 election, the ghost of Harris seemed to have been invoked with the frequency of a favourite dead uncle at a seance.

"Harris plays so central a role in pre-election messaging in the run-up to the 2011 election that he really deserves royalties," Graham Murray, a long-time observer of the legislature, said before the campaign got underway formally.

While Harris, who has not surfaced — at least publicly — as part of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak's campaign, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty has made several disparaging allusions to the Harris era.

"These guys will attack our public services,'' he said of the Progressive Conservatives at one recent campaign stop.

"Remember what the PC government did."

The Liberals also released a new TV ad Saturday that highlights Hudak's ties to Harris.

It was in 1995 that Harris led his Progressive Conservative party to a decisive, if unexpected, election win on the basis of the populist "Common Sense Revolution" platform.

What followed were some of the most divisive, in-your-face politics the province had ever seen, as Harris — dubbed Chainsaw Mike — took an axe to taxes as well as to spending on welfare and a host of other government programs and services.

Detractors loathed him with a passion that at times sparked violent protests.

Supporters loved the approach: re-electing him in 1999 with a slightly increased share of the popular vote.

Harris left politics in 2002, turning over the premier's office to his former finance minister Ernie Eves.

Ultimately, a powerful anti-Tory backlash — fuelled partly by the Walkerton water tragedy of May 2000 — thrust the Liberals under McGuinty into office in 2003.

McGuinty's campaign promise back then was to restore calm to the province — a pledge, most observers agree, he kept.

Hudak is pushing some policies — tax cuts and making prisoners work for their keep, for example — that are reminiscent of Harris's populist, right-wing approach.

Substantively, however, the Tory platform — including pledges to keep the HST and implement all-day kindergarten — is not that much different from the Liberal approach.

Nevertheless, Hudak's detractors point out he cut his political teeth under Harris. In addition, the Tory leader is married to Deb Hutton, Harris's chief of staff in his early tumultuous years.

Hudak also received a public vote of confidence this week from a former colleague during the Harris years. Federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, the former provincial finance minister, said he has sat at both negotiating tables and dinner tables with Hudak and believes he is the only leader who can take the province on a new path.

Despite his long career, pundits argue most voters do not necessarily associate the Hudak with his erstwhile boss.

"The Harris thing is hugely overrated," said Liberal strategist Bob Richardson.

"As much as people are interested in the past, they're going to be interested in where you're going in the future."

Still, some observers are not so sure the voting public — or at least the segment that either opposed the Harris style or simply grew tired of it — has forgotten his roiling years in office.

"Tarring Hudak with the Mike Harris brush will be effective among that part of the electorate who fear a return to the really divisive politics that characterized the Common Sense Revolution," said Bryan Evans, an associate professor of politics at Ryerson University.

Judith McKenzie, an associate professor political science at the University of Guelph, called the invocation of Harris's name a sign of Liberal desperation.

"McGuinty thinks his best hope is to raise the fears among NDP supporters and Conservative supporters that we're heading back into these dark Conservative times," McKenzie said.

"Their only hope is to scare voters."

In a twist in July, a Liberal cabinet minister dubbed NDP Leader Andrea Horwath "the new Mike Harris" over her policies on poverty and the environment.

Harris declined a request for an interview.