TORONTO — ONLY a few weeks ago, Mike Harris was considered a political joke. His opponents running for premier of Ontario had tagged him as the "Archie Bunker" candidate railing against lazy welfare recipients and laws favoring minority hiring.
Now Mr. Harris is having the last laugh. On June 8, the former golf pro and ski instructor-turned-leader of the Progressive Conservative Party rode an unexpected wave of right-wing populism to become the premier-elect of Canada's wealthiest and most populous province.
Ontario's leap across the political spectrum - from the previous socialist government - is part of a continent-wide electoral shift to the right that includes the rise in the United States of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican warriors, some analysts say.In a nation where citizens have traditionally revered government, Mr. Harris - who was also labeled "Newt of the North" - won by running hard against bureaucracy, deficits, and high taxes.
"Anger over high taxes and government overspending has produced a right-wing populism that is growing in Canada," says Donna Dasko, vice president of Environics Research Group, a Toronto polling firm. "It hasn't happened all at once. But it certainly looks dramatic when you have a cosmopolitan province like Ontario go suddenly from a socialist to a right-wing government."
Harris engineered his come-from-behind victory in the provincial election by attacking the sacred cows of government and social welfare programs. Promises of "workfare not welfare" and the dumping of "employment equity" laws were dismissed as red-neck and racist by the Liberal Party and socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) government.
But apparently not to Ontario voters. Disgruntled by high taxes, high unemployment, and perceptions that a growing welfare-dependent class was soaking them, Ontario's urban and suburban middle class were ready for Harris's message.
"I'm not a conservative," says Lawrence Rosen, a Toronto resident explaining his choice outside a polling station. "But I voted conservative this time because I believe Harris just might understand the need to cut the government budget deficit so we can create jobs in this province."
Supported by such sentiments, Harris's Progressive Conservative (PC) Party collected 45 percent of the popular vote - a comfortable majority in a three-way race - and 82 of 130 seats in the provincial parliament. They did surprisingly well in multicultural Toronto.
Why did Ontario back a candidate whose antigovernment style went against their historical sensibilities?
Voters like Mr. Rosen, an accountant, say that despite an improved economy nationwide, Ontario's unemployment rate of about 10 percent is high. He worries another recession may be on its way.
Elaine Marcus, an investment banker outside a polling station, delivers a clear endorsement of Harris's "workfare" program. "I like the idea of workfare because it's simply a matter of ethics - able-bodied people should work. I'm tired of paying for everyone else."
Voters like Ms. Marcus are angry because Ontario has a higher percentage of residents on welfare than any other province, says Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political scientist. In Newfoundland, for example, 30,000 fishermen are out of work, driving the percentage of workers on welfare up to 11.7 percent. In Ontario, a higher 12 percent of workers are on welfare, he says.
Marcus's sentiment is in line with the free-market economic principles. It also runs counter to Canadian's perception of their country as a "kinder, gentler" place than the US.
"This tough streak among Canadians starts with the fiscal crunch," Ms. Dasko says. "All other issues take off from that. But what is surprising is the extent to which the conservatives were able to use these issues to mobilize people. It shows how far Canadians have come."
Not everyone agrees that the Harris victory represents an ideological shift. Some say it is simple pragmatism.
"This is no big ideological swing," says Robert MacDermid, a political scientist at York University in Toronto. "These are people worried about their jobs, education for their child, pensions.... They've tried three parties' solutions in a row. Now they're trying Harris."
Still, Mr. MacDermid agrees that even if Ontario's vote is not an ideological shift, it is clearly a policy shift to the right that follows a pattern set in the west.
The western-based Reform Party won 52 seats in Parliament by attacking government spending and immigration policies. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein has remained popular despite years of chopping government social programs and health care.
Shock waves from the Ontario election are expected to be felt in this year's provincial elections in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and even in the next federal election.
The Ontario victory injects new life in the provincial PC party. It also provides a lift to the western-based Reform Party and the federal PC party, both of which will claim that Harris is essentially one of their own. The big loser was the Ontario Liberal Party, which started the campaign with a huge lead in the polls. But Liberal leader Lyn McLeod and NDP leader Bob Rae ended up mostly attacking Harris's positions and muddying their own.
During the campaign, Harris came to relish yet another nickname - "Attila the Un" - for all the government red tape he was going to "undo." Running as much against government as for leadership, he has promised to cut the number of members of the provincial parliament from 130 to 99 and their hefty pensions, along with 13,000 government jobs.
"All the damage they've done, we're going to undo," Harris said the day after his victory, referring to previous NDP and Liberal governments. "We intend to move on the changes that we were elected to put in place, and we will deliver."