Ontario hails 'Gingrich of the North'

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The Independent Online


The Conservatives' sweep back into power in Ontario, Canada's largest and most prosperous province, has provided a shot in the arm for the ailing national Tory organisation by demonstrating a surge of voter interest in radical right-wing policies.

Mike Harris, a former golf pro and teacher is already being called the ''Gingrich of the North'', after the radical Republican Speaker of US House of Representatives. He had campaigned for the past year on a platform labelled "the Common Sense Agenda". On Thursday he took the Conservatives from third place to 82 of the 130 seats in the Ontario parliament.

Ontario, with a population a bit larger than Sweden's 9 million and a similar industrial and social structure, represents a third of Canada's population. It is the base for most of the main industrial enterprises as well as the banks and other financial-services.

The Conservative victory represents massive voter rejection of the interventionist approach taken over four-and-a-half years by the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP), which has often modelled itself on the Swedish Social Democrats.

Mr Harris correctly sensed weariness of the high taxes necessitated by generous social-welfare programmes and meddling in the labour market by the New Democrats as they tried to spend their way out of the 1991- 92 recession. He has pledged to balance the books in five years through spending and tax cuts.

The Conservatives attacked a recent NDP law which required employers to set targets for hiring women and minorities. They also promised to slash payments to the 1.4 million people on social assistance and turn that into a cut in personal income tax rates by as much as 15 per cent.

The ''Common Sense Agenda'' appealed to the middle and upper classes at the expense of the poor. The Tories won 45 per cent of the vote, compared with 31 per cent for the Liberals and 17 per cent for the NDP. The voting splits of a three-party race produced a disproportionate majority of the legislature seats.

The results signal the desire of many for less government interference and reflect some spillover of the influence of the US Republican Party. One of the most popular promises was Mr Harris's commitment to get rid of photo-radar, introduced by the NDP for catching speeding motorists. It produced huge increases in revenue but smacked of Big Brother.

But the Ontario results do not translate automatically to the national political scene. While there is some overlap between membership of federal and provincial parties, Canadians have often split their votes, choosing a different provincial party to act as a check on the party in power in Ottawa.

But the Ontario victory will give the national Conservative leader, Jean Charest, whose party was reduced in 1993 from being the government to only two seats in the federal parliament, some financial and organisational support as he tries to rebuild his party.