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The Progressive Economics Forum

Mike Harris Blames the Victim … Again

Lightning should surely have struck the offices of the Fraser Institute last week when it released a study co-authored by Mike Harris, the former Ontario Premier, on the supposedly declining state of the City of Toronto.


The study itself (“Is Toronto in Decline?”, available at  was nothing to write home about.  It consisted solely of rehashed results from a public opinion poll, and a highly simplistic look at basic census data on median incomes.  Citing the poll results (which were based on blatantly leading questions), the authors hinted darkly that that Torontonians are worried about their future (gee, who isn’t?), and “waste and poor value for taxes may be to blame.”  (Yes, and fluoridated water “may be to blame,” too.)


The census data was then invoked to make two main points.  First, median income in Toronto (and Ontario as a whole) has grown more slowly than in Canada as a whole since 2000, and is now slightly below the national average.  No surprise here: there’s a three-letter explanation for this trend, O-I-L.  Indeed, the same finding (that median income has fallen relative to the national average) is true for every province that does not produce petroleum, and for virtually every city in every province which does not produce petroleum.  According to the Fraser study, only one non-petroleum city showed any improvement in relative median income: Winnipeg, which eked out a tiny gain (presumably coasting on the coattails of its booming, oil-producing prairie neighbours).


Second, the Fraser study highlighted a decline in the number of white-collar management professionals in Toronto as a “proxy” for its supposedly declining appeal as a business centre.  Forgive me, but I don’t view the number of well-paid yuppies driving BMWs as a key indicator of social progress.  I am more concerned with how the rest of us are living.  And state-of-the-art research on urban economics (from folks like the U of T’s Richard Florida) confirms that the general quality and social cohesion of city life is indeed more important in attracting the so-called “creative class” (a term I hate) than tax cuts, small government, and the other Fraser Institute shibboleths.


More infuriating than the study’s iffy methodology and shallow findings, however, was the sheer irony of watching Mike Harris point fingers at the City of Toronto.

Earlier this year I served on Toronto Mayor David Miller’s special task force, which spent four months reviewing Toronto’s fiscal situation.  Our goal was to evaluate the city’s current fiscal condition and propose alternatives.  And underneath virtually every fiscal rock we turned over, we found the enduring, dirty legacy of Harris’s own tenure as Premier.


I was never a Harris supporter, of course.  But through the work of this panel, I was personally shocked to learn of the many ways that Toronto is still struggling to overcome the fiscal legacy of his years in power.


How did the Mike Harris government hurt Toronto, and other cities in Ontario?  Let me count the ways:


Social Downloading:  Harris shifted the partial or total cost of many social programs (including housing, social assistance, and public health) onto municipal governments, which rely heavily on property taxes for their revenue base.  The wisdom of trying to fund social programs from property taxes is dubious, which was probably Harris’s whole point: when it becomes impossible to pay for them, desperate civic governments will just eliminate them.  If Ontario does enter recession in the coming months, Toronto will experience a fiscal explosion in the form of $200 million per year in new social assistance costs (based on the proportional trend of the last recession).  Mike Harris’s fingerprints will be all over the bomb.


Attacking the Poor:  The median income measure favoured by the Fraser Institute depends just as much on the people living below the mid-point, as on those above it.  And Mike Harris did more to hammer that bottom half than any provincial politician since Mitchell Hepburn in the 1930s.  He cut welfare rates 22 percent, leaving poor people to fend for themselves, and blaming them for their own plight.  This damage has not been seriously addressed (not yet, anyway) by the Liberals who replaced Harris’s gang in 2003.  Social conditions in the City’s poor neighbourhoods have deteriorated markedly, imposing a continuing toll (in crime, policing costs, alienation, and instability) that the City’s creative efforts (like its pioneering anti-violence strategy) can’t single-handedly solve.  Harris’s regressive labour law changes (making it near impossible to organize new unions) made matters worse at the bottom end of the labour market.


Forced Amalgamation:  Harris’s social engineers dreamed up and forced through the hare-brained scheme to amalgamate Toronto’s former six boroughs, justified by wild claims about administrative savings and “synergies.”  Sound familiar?  Corporate honchos spout the same rhetoric every time they bound to the podium to announce another mega-merger.  But studies show these savings are almost always illusory in the business world – and that’s how it went down in Toronto, too.  The administrative hassle of integrating bureaucracies, services, and collective agreements has preoccupied city administration for a decade.  Only now is the City finally coming out the other end: with a higher cost structure (not lower), partly thanks to the upward harmonization of wage levels in amalgamated contracts (OK, I support that part of it!).  Oh yeah, and Toronto still owns six city halls (seven if you count Metro Hall).


Funding Cuts:  As part of his all-out attack on government “waste,” Harris took a big axe to provincial transfer payments to Ontario’s cities.  According to Statistics Canada data, they fell steadily from 4.1% of provincial GDP in 1994 (the year before he was elected) to 2.9% of GDP in 1994 (his last full year in office).  It hardly seems reasonable to cut the funding base of cities by a third – and then berate them for the deteriorating conditions that resulted.


Free-Market Experimentation:  Other municipal-level programs and services were also the subject to the Harris government’s extreme market-oriented experiments.  School boards (“first we need to create a crisis”) suffered funding cuts and provincial interference.  Municipal hydro utilities (consistent money-makers for cities) were forcibly converted into corporations, and forced to take on large debt – all part of an indirect scheme to force their privatization.


Bad enough that Mike Harris spent eight years ravaging the social and economic foundation of our cities, then to stroll off to his new position with a corporate-funded think-tank.  For him to now come back and point fingers at the victims of his own policies, is a profound insult to those of us who actually have to live in the mess he did so much to create.


The only thing more infuriating is that key members of his posse (Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, and John Baird) are now running the show in Ottawa.


Jim Stanford was one of six members of Mayor Miller’s fiscal review panel, and lives in Parkdale.

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Comment from Peter Mackey
Time: July 4, 2008, 3:49 pm

I Once heard the phrase “less government more freedom”. Harris stood at the height of 30 years of blaming government and denying its essential services to all the public. The consequences could be fatal: hence Walkerton; the out comes of unregulated markets are notoriously unequal as the recent Stats Can and CCPA Osberg’s report, A Quarter Century of Economic Inequality in Canada attest.

Corporate power has matured in past 30 years; corporations contiue to advertize the primacy of their goods over public goods and The Public Good. Business has gained unprcedented influence over public policy and public purpose. I would welcome discussion by economists on the value and worth of public goods, and how government redistribution of income and the reduction of great inequality benefits everyone.

As for the poor bashing, I am tired of measuring everyone by their marginal utility, forcing some one else to toil, when others merely work in pleasant surroundings and are reminded of how rewarding, fulfilling and necessary is their work.

Comment from colleen
Time: July 4, 2008, 11:16 pm

I am with you on the poor bashing, especially when government is the one bashing; I know we had a slasher here in BC and there is no doubt in my mind it was government chatter that help promote the hate.

Comment from Peter Mackey
Time: July 6, 2008, 3:08 pm

Gordon Campbell took the Harris play book and hired Andersen/Accenture to privatize social services and kick people off welfare.

The Liberals here in Ontario have done nothing to change the business culture of Ontario Works nor scrap the database program(written by Andersen…) which spews out suspension letters while welfare workers find it extremely difficult to fix errors which deny benefits. The most common consequence is failure to pay rent. Now the Liberals are off on a merry goose chase consulting about how to define poverty.

It was very difficult to do studies on people leaving welfare. No doubt the good economic run from ’96 to the present meant many found employment. Otherwise,
it is not clear what happened to those people who could not find dependable employment enough to qualify for EI. Now we have a recession in Ontario…again

So much for prudent fiscal managers eh?

Comment from K. Huth
Time: July 7, 2008, 7:07 am

I wondered, though, if amalgamation can help with the problem of free-riding suburbs, eventually. It seems that the ability of, say, Mississauga, to draw people away from the centre with low property taxes (thus creating sprawl), could be addressed by large-scale amalgamation. Which is not to defend Harris, of course.

Comment from Andrew Jackson
Time: July 7, 2008, 8:46 am

I think it is interesting and disturbing that median incomes in Toronto are significantly lagging Ontario as a whole – as shown in the recent Toronto United Way study – and that City incomes are also a lot more polarized. This likely reflects the fact that those who want to move from renting to home ownership are forced to move out, unless they are at the very top of the income scale. I find Florida largely
silent on the fact that his concentrations of the creative class tend to be high inequality locations.

Comment from Christina Archer
Time: September 28, 2008, 9:16 am

I shudder at the possiblity of a Conservative federal majority. Mr. Harper will bash the poor and whatever else stands in their way. I have been poor, and think that the ‘poor’ are great scapegoats. All should stand against tax cuts which just appeal to greed.

Comment from Danny Handelman
Time: August 18, 2012, 3:32 pm

Poverty and inequality is largely a function of government intervention in land use, through height and minimum setback restrictions, segregation of residential and commercial use of land, minimum automobile parking (rather than maximum automobile of 0), development charges being too low for low-density and too high for infill and basing property taxes on the value of land and building rather than land alone makes it more profitable for builders to build outward rather than upward. Apartments, in particular, are taxed at a higher rate than other types of dwelling units (because they are considered to be a business), even though the cost to provide services per apartment dwelling unit is lower.

Comment from average cost of finishing a basement per square foot
Time: August 23, 2012, 12:25 am

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