SNOBELEN: Mike Harris a transformational leader of Ontario

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I can vividly recall one morning when my then young friend James Payne was being severely tested by a rather snorty two-year old colt. James was up on the saddle and the horse was pondering his next move when I offered a bit of advice. James, I said, maybe you should try whispering to him.

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Back in the day, horse whispering jokes were common in places where people trained good performance horses. Most of the cowboys I knew had a dim view of the folks who claimed to be masters of whispering but never seemed to show up when the best brought their horses to compete. All hat, no cattle.

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Bragging is, I suppose, a good thing for influence peddlers, but it’s also a pretty strong indication that you have not attained mastery. Willie Nelson doesn’t have to brag about songwriting. His songs, like James’ horses, speak for themselves.

My friend Tracy Goss had a non-cowboy view of bragging. She once reminded me that sometimes leaders must take credit, not because they have a personal need for adoration, but because an issue or idea needed a visible champion. Good point.

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The Mike Harris legacy is stuck somewhere between those two positions. After leaving politics, Harris has been reluctant to defend his legacy. His record speaks for itself.

The cowboy in me honours that approach, but I suspect that Tracy has been proven right. The absence of a champion for the Harris legacy has been unhelpful in informing future governments. There is much to learn about change, leadership and possibility from the Harris era.

There is no doubt Harris was a transformational leader. His time in office shaped the future of Ontario and — in significant ways — Canada. Someone ought to write about that transformation.

Turns out someone did. Alister Campbell, who, 30 years ago, was one of the bright young people behind the Common Sense Revolution, has put together a series of objective, thoughtful essays on the major Harris policy initiatives. The Harris Legacy is a collaboration of 18 sharp minds making learned observations on the long-term effects of Harris era policies. It’s worth a long, careful read.

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I’m glad Alister put this book together. It’s accurate, timely and wise. But I hope someone tells the rest of the story.

The policies that created the City of Toronto, put testing back in schools, helped people find the dignity of work and dramatically cut taxes while balancing the budget are part of the Harris legacy. But there is more.

A part of the legacy is Harris’s unique leadership. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say comes immediately to mind.

Almost exactly 30 years ago Harris released the Common Sense Revolution, a detailed plan that put his proposals to the electorate a full year before the election. He distributed a million copies of the plan in the expectation that people would hold him to it. He harnessed a rare thing, the power of conviction.

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That power is worth studying. It underlies a respect for voters that is sadly absent in the politics of dividing people into warring camps and only talking to the converted. His policy development reached beyond the party and often beyond conventional wisdom. He sought common sense solutions to big problems.

That approach was revolutionary three decades ago. It would be refreshing now.

Someone should write about the Harris leadership. But, until someone does, I’m glad we have The Harris Legacy.

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