Many narrators discuss the "Harris Years" of the provincial government in Ontario, which coincided with the Desh Pardesh festival's run, and shaped the social role of an arts festival in the province. Desh organizers and artists worked in conditions of growing austerity and marginalizing artists' voices in the public sphere. Therefore, some background on this context is key to understanding the festival's importance and its operating constraints.
The Harris Government and the “Common Sense Revolution”
In June of 1995, the people of Ontario elected the Progressive Conservative party, also known as the Tories, into provincial government with Mike Harris seated as their head. The mission statement that accompanied Mike Harris and the Tories was a 21-page pamphlet called the Common Sense Revolution. Despite the cuts that this “revolution” brought to critical sectors like healthcare, welfare and education, the Tories were brought back for a second term in 1999. Their rise to power and their consistent hold on the Ontario government is largely a function of the deficit that prior governments accumulated and how this angered voters in higher tax brackets.
The Common Sense Revolution focused on tax reduction to stimulate economic development. When the Harris government came into office, the prior governments, that of Bob Rae (NDP, 1990-1995) and David Peterson (Liberal, 1985-1990), had accumulated a fair amount of debt for the Ontario government. This is largely because the NDP and Liberal ideology for economic development was an investment in education, training and human capital. They reformed the education system, established smart infrastructure, useful transportation links, and networking centres where university students could contact high tech firms and other businesses. They increased the deficit in hopes of a future economic renewal. However, after Harris came into government, they did face a new challenge — the federal government capped funding from the Canada Assistance Plan (1996). Each province did not receive a block grant and then were expected to handle other funding through municipal and provincial initiatives. This created a situation in which there were added burdens on the provincial government and fewer funding sources.
Harris’ response to this added issue, the enormous debt at hand, and the expectations of the people that elected him based on his vow to would follow through with his campaign promises was to slash taxes, reduce government spending and overhaul the bureaucracy. This was followed by the social housing collapse, high homelessness, a collapsing transit system and welfare rollbacks. Toronto, being one of the hubs of Ontario and the most involved in the free trade market, experienced the hardest hit by Harris’ reforms, but the Harris government largely ignored its deterioration. He essentially went into neoliberal overdrive.
Neoliberalism and the PC Harris Government
Neoliberal ideology is a new form of classical liberalism, which is based on core capitalistic values. Capitalism rests on the goal of free-market systems, wherein capital flow controls the market without governmental interference — government involvement is to be kept as minimal as possible so that the market may work organically. The system is maintained through legal and social mechanisms that reinforce relations of domination that accompany these core goals — it is critical to maintain a superordinate to subordinate relation wherein the holders of production means dominate the working class/producers. A legalistic mechanism during Harris’ time was the reformation of the definitions of welfare fraud. Harris passed a sweeping reform of the welfare system in 1999 that lost tens of thousands of people their welfare grants based on conviction of fraud or ineligibility (i.e. not being poor enough). This reform reinforces the neoliberal system because it keeps tax money away from non-market oriented activities such as welfare and allowed it to recirculate into the free flow of the market. Alongside the cuts to welfare, Harris also introduced mandatory work placements for welfare recipients while not accounting for the social mobility in these jobs, childcare or family structure. The arts also took huge cuts, which the Desh Pardesh festival felt between 1999-2001, on the tail end of its collapse.
Another effect of neoliberalism, or arguably a component of it, is the proliferation of mass production under Fordist thought. Mass production is a tenet of capitalism (and hence, neoliberalism) because it creates excessive product at low cost for monetary profit and creates an exploitative owner-producer relationship. Harris’ commitment to being business-friendly was another way of adhering to the goals of the free market. Harris made it so that the government would no longer function as an active arm in the province’s economy, as it had been under the liberals and NDP. The PC government would rather cut government spending and taxes to allow a more conducive environment for “small business.”
Clarkson, Stephan. 1999. “Paradigm Shift or Political Correction? Putting Ontario’s ‘Common Sense Revolution’ in a Global Context.” Regional & Federal Studies 9(3): 81-106.
Duchesne, Scott. 1999. “Mike is the Message: Performing the Common Sense Revolution.” Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches Théâtrales au Canada 20(1): 1-7.
Jinkings, Isabella. 2011. “The Neoliberal State and the Penalization of Misery.” Latin American Perspectives 38(178):9-18.
Piven, Fox Francis. 1965. “Relief, Labour and Civil Disorder.” in Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. Vol. 3., Studies in Social Ecology and Pathology The American Studies Collection. Michigan: Vintage Books.
The Globe and Mail. 2009. “Mike Harris's Legacy.”