Canadian Tories come back the Gingrich way

ONLY TWO years ago the Canadian Conservatives suffered one of the worst electoral thrashings ever seen, collapsing from a ruling majority of 156 seats in the national parliament to a rump of only two. Under Brian Mulroney they had been in power for nine years and they switched leaders just before the elections, installing the sparky lawyer Kim Campbell in the hope of reversing a slump in popularity. Such was the calamity at the polls that it seemed it would take many years before they could claw their way back to political credibility.

But earlier this month in Ontario, Canada's largest and most prosperous province, the Progressive Conservative Party managed to oust from power a social democratic provincial government by offering the electorate a menu of policies very different from those that had been put forward in 1993. This was a small-is-better economic fundamentalism spiced with moral zeal, and the Ontario Tories adopted it after seeing the success of Newt Gingrich's New Right politics in the United States. Their winning slogan was a promise that they would get the government "out of your face, and out of your pocketbook".

The Ontario Tories made their pitch directly to the higher end of the middle classes. They promised less government, fewer giveaways to what was perceived as a pampered welfare subclass, and a substantial tax cut.

Ontario, with 9 million people, is effectively a state within a state, in many ways the most self-sufficient of Canada's provinces. It contains most of the country's industrial base and is the headquarters of the communications and financial industries. Its economy, hit hard by recession in 1991-92, is now booming again. Ontario is also the destination of choice for most of Canada's new immigrants.

In the election the Conservatives, led by premier-elect Michael Harris, identified and exploited a popular resentment towards the 1.4 million Ontario people remaining on welfare or other forms of social assistance. They campaigned on the promise to offer this group "a hand up, not a hand out" - a formula now familiar in Britain as well as the US. This was combined with a proposal for a "workfare" programme, under which able- bodied welfare recipients would have to work in state-created jobs in order to receive benefits.

The Conservatives also plan to attack government. By laying off civil servants as well as reducing welfare payments, they say they can save enough money to cut the provincial portion of Canada's combined income tax assessment by 30 per cent. This arithmetic has been hotly contested by opposition parties.

Highest of all on their agenda, however, is early action to overturn much of the interventionist legislation enacted by their social democratic predecessors, who had strong links with labour. The first targets will be an employment equity bill which sets quotas for the hiring of women and people from minority groups, and a labour standards law that forbids companies from hiring replacement workers when their own personnel are on strike.

All this is not owed exclusively to the inspiration of Mr Gingrich. The Ontario Tories borrowed many of their policies from the far-right Reform Party of Canada which has for some time been eroding their support.