Watching Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put on a brave face for Global-TV’s Focus Ontario (December 22, 2012) was a stark reminder that since 1985 governing Ontario has been “an unforgiving business.”
Since the collapse of the 42-year old Progressive Conservative dynasty in 1985, there have already been four major changes of regime, from PC to Liberal (1985-87), from Liberal to NDP (1990), from NDP to PC (1995), and from PC back to Liberal (2003). Each of these regime changes has run smack into what historian Randall White has aptly termed “the bureaucratic behemoth” (Ontario Since 1985, pp. 159-60) Challenging the strategic position and prerogatives of the Ontario education service state, defended by public sector unions, will likely be the political death of you.
The Ontario Premier and his Liberals are on the ropes and he seems not to have heeded the sage advice of his own father, the late Dalton McGuinty, the Elder. Since 1985, the roots of the problem lie in what the McGuinty’s father described as “Operation Alienation.” Getting into power at Queen’s Park is far easier than staying there. Powerful interest groups like the OHA, OPSEU, and OSSTF, hold sway in the Ontario public service state. Interest group consultation can and does give way to “promiscuous courting of special interests’ that “eventually come back to haunt you” (John Ibbitson, Promised Land, 1997, pp. 44-45).
The sheer size of the Ontario public service state means it is difficult to manage let alone rein in when faced with economic downturns or mounting provincial debt. The provincial public service in 1985 numbered 85,000 employees, having increased by 11 times since 1943, a period when the provincial population had doubled. By the middle of Liberal Premier David Peterson’s regime, the public service had ballooned to 96,500, and under Bob Rae’s NDP government it dropped to 91,500 in 1991-92, only to return to its highest levels in 1993, shortly before the introduction of the ill-fated July 1993 Social Contract.
Rae’s infamous 1993 plan of spending restraint was the first to attack the problem, but it set out to achieve $2 billion in savings by offering public sector job security in return for “days off without pay” which were quickly dubbed “Rae Days.”
The Mike Harris regime championing the Common Sense Revolution took power in June 1995 determined to tame the Ontario bureaucratic behemoth. In the 1995 election, the Harris platform pledged to reduce the size of the public service by 15% (or about 13,000 employees). Fear mongers in the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) predicted that some 27,000jobs were at risk if the Revolution proceeded as planned without interruption. In actual fact, by the late 1990s, after the Rae NDP and Harris Tory cutbacks, the public service had 25,000 fewer employees. Even within the NDP inner advisory councils attitudes had hardened and reducing the public service was no longer spoken of as bad for the province.
The Ontario social service state survived both the Rae and Harris regimes, especially the hospital and school sectors, and provincial public employees still represented two out of every five members of the total workforce. Since 2003, the McGuinty Liberal Government has favoured the education sector, pouring millions into the P-12 schools and, reversing the trend, by hiring 14,000 more teachers (up 10%) while student enrolment dropped by 6 per cent. Prior to proposing a two-year wage freeze and introducing Bill 115 (August 2012), the McGuinty regime had also increased teacher salaries by 24 per cent.
Ontario teachers unions have fared much better under McGuinty’s Liberals than under Rae’s NDP from 1990 to 1995. When the Social Contract was introduced in March 1993, rolling back public sector compensation was presented in a fashion markedly similar to the McGuinty two-year salary freeze. Facing a debt trap, the NDP sought to prevent a $10 billion deficit from reaching $17 billion. Within the NDP cabinet and Ontario labour ranks, the teachers were viewed with quiet distain. “To many of the OFL affiliates,” Tom Walkom wrote in Rae Days, “the teachers were spoiled, not real workers. They had become fat at the public teat during the previous twenty years and had never been confronted with the central reality of labour relations –sometimes you win; sometimes you lose (p. 135).”
Ontario’s complex progressive conservative political culture may be slowly dying, but it’s taking its time. The NDP under Bob Rae tried to be creative with “Rae Days” to tackle the staggering deficit when debt servicing overtook educational spending. Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution (1995-98) re-sized the social service state significantly, then the PC’s lapsed back into more mainstream progressive conservatism.
Five years ago, former Premier Mike Harris insisted that his Common Sense Revolution was stymied by, and ran aground in, the educational bureaucracy. “The education ministry implemented reforms the only way it knew how: telling school boards what to do,” he commented. “Nobody volunteered that the government’s ‘partners’ might benefit instead from increased flexibility, less provincial oversight and greater competition.”
What proved to be Harris’ main nemesis? By 2001, Harris said, “we realized that the pendulum might have swung too far. That year’s Throne Speech disavowed ‘expanded central bureaucracy’ and ‘one-size-fits-all solutions,’ and publicly chided the Ministry of Education that it could not possibly run 4,746 schools and 74,895 classrooms. In hindsight, we were too hesitant to introduce competition and choice into these public (school and hospital) systems.”
The McGuinty Liberal regime (2003-2011) reversed the tide, then instituted an Austerity Drive to reduce its alarming $14.4 billion deficit. After increasing education spending by 45% between 2003 and 2011, the two-year salary freeze and end to sick-day banking came like a lightning bolt and precipitated a teacher labour disruption rivaling that of the Ontario teachers war of the late 1990s against Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.
What do Bob Rae’s NDP Social Contract plan, Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, and Dalton McGuinty’s Putting Students First agenda all have in common? Was Ontario’s first “revolution” from 1993 to 1998 really a precursor to the second phase of the current Austerity Drive, two decades later? Do Ontario educational regime changes follow a cyclical pattern? If so, what’s the likelihood of it happening all over again?