Harmonizing sales taxes takes guts.
Premiers Dalton McGuinty and Gordon Campbell, along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, deserve credit for doing what's right instead of what is popular.
But my favourite example of political courage isn't about taxes or trade or foreign policy.
It's about milk.
In the 1930s, the most powerful lobby in Ontario was the farmers.
Dairy farmers were four-square against mandatory pasteurization of their product to protect against bovine tuberculosis. They argued the science was unproven, but feared the cost of new machinery. No politician would dare cross the farmers, particularly one like Premier Mitch Hepburn who relied on farm votes in Southwestern Ontario for his majority.
Just before the Legislature resumed in 1937, Hepburn accepted the invitation of Dr. Alan Brown, the chief pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children, to tour the hospital.
Hepburn confronted two long rows of children infected with the wasting disease. Tuberculosis attacked the lymph nodes and lungs. It leaves the patient weak, feverish, coughing and wasting away. The effect on adults is terrible. In children, the ravages are horrifying and potentially deadly.
The pediatrician informed the Premier that these were victims of raw milk, children who would not be there if the government would act.
"Your government has the power - if it wishes to use it - to empty hospital wards like these," Dr. Brown whispered.
"Done," Hepburn is said to have replied.
The result was legislation to make pasteurization mandatory, and a firestorm that threatened to split Hepburn's caucus and Cabinet.
Even Hepburn's own riding of Elgin was in revolt. In early 1938, Hepburn entertained a delegation of farmers enthusiastically opposed to pasteurization. They cited the cost, and questioned evidence that untreated milk caused the disease.
According to his biography, Hepburn recognized one of the men demanding he stop pasteurization.
"How many children do you have?"
"I have five," replied the surprised farmer.
"Didn't you have seven?"
"Yes, but two died."
"They died of bovine tuberculosis, didn't they? They drank milk from your own cows and died?" Hepburn persisted angrily.
"You came here today to protest against the pasteurization of milk. You have already lost two children to bovine tuberculosis, but that doesn't prevent you from coming here to ask this Government to withdraw its bill and leave your children and other children open to the threat of death. What kind of man are you?"
The opposition didn't quiet, despite Hepburn's steel. But the Premier persisted and it became his proudest accomplishment.
"I had to take the hard way, not the popular way," Hepburn told farmers in his own riding after the bill was passed, "and I am going to live to see the day when the children of Ontario will be safe from the dangers of bovine tuberculosis."
By 1941, cases of tuberculosis had dropped by 45 per cent, while typhoid was down 50 per cent.
Lives were saved by Hepburn's courage.
When we think of politicians we admire, it tends to be for when they demonstrated guts.
Laurier was successful because of his "sunny ways" but it was his principled stand on reciprocity, minority rights and conscription that earned history's respect.
Pearson won the Nobel Prize, but it was the fight over a flag for Canada that made him great.
Trudeaumania was cute, but crushing the FLQ, defeating the separatists and repatriating the Constitution are Trudeau's legacy.
Mulroney's smarm leaves many cold, but his courage on free trade is undeniable.
The Clarity Act and staying out of Iraq were the two greatest - and toughest - decisions of Jean Chrétien's career.
Too many politicians want to be loved, when what they should seek is respect.
Which brings me to the harmonized sales tax.
Nothing could be less popular than a higher tax on gasoline, haircuts, new homes and chocolate bars.
It is visible. They break it out for you at the bottom of your receipt.
It is omnipresent. Income tax you pay just once a year, but sales tax a dozen times a day.
It is broad. You pay it on hundreds of items with just a few exemptions.
As politics goes, harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the federal GST is climbing a waterfall with a fifty pound anchor around your waist.
But we don't elect our leaders to be factotums who tally up polls and stick their finger in the wind to make decisions.
We elect leaders to lead.
As Burke famous stated, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
The HST is undeniably good policy.
It creates jobs. It would create enough jobs to basically cut the current unemployment rate by more than half in ten years.
It draws investment. Based on estimates, more than $4000 per Ontarian will get spent to upgrade our businesses, making them still more competitive and job creating.
It increases incomes. The average Ontarian will see significantly more money in their paycheque as a result.
Jack Mintz at the University of Calgary just issued a study on the impacts of the HST in Ontario.
He forecasts 591,000 net new jobs thanks to the HST, as well as $47-billion in new business investment and increased average incomes of up to 8.8 per cent.
These are results worth fighting for. These are results worth being defeated for.
If the only legacy of Gordon Campbell in British Columbia and Dalton McGuinty in Ontario were successfully harmonizing the sales taxes in their provinces, they would have left a powerful gift to the next generation.
But Gordon Campbell or Dalton McGuinty will not be defeated by the HST.
Laurier lost the reciprocity election in 1911, it's true.
But Pearson, Mulroney, Trudeau and Chretien all survived their trials. (I recall the predictions of Chretien's imminent defeat on the Clarity Act vividly, and the subsequent 2000 general election saw the Liberals do better in Quebec that they had in any other election between 1984 and today.)
The HST is the right thing to do. Good policy is always good politics, even when it isn't "good politics."
Neither opposition party in Ontario is actually pledging to repeal the legislation, instead attempting to have their cake and eat it to.
After all, who in their right mind would run against creating 591,000 jobs and increase real income by up to 8.8 per cent? "Fewer jobs with less pay" is hardly an inspiring slogan for Tim Hudak.
But the biggest single reason neither government will be defeated on the HST is this: it's a job creation issue.
If I were running door-to-door seeking reelection, I would like nothing better than encountering at every single home the opportunity to engage voters on the biggest single action I've taken to protect and create jobs in Ontario.
You can stir up populist outrage over an issue when attention is low and people are only feeling the sticker shock of higher prices at the pumps.
But in the heat of an election campaign, the truth matters.
The truth is the HST creates jobs, draws investment and increases incomes. Those facts are as undeniable as climate change and the sun rising tomorrow.
It is also true that the Ontario package includes generous income tax cuts and rebates that will significantly lighten the burden on consumers, particularly in the early days when the economic impacts are lagging the cost impacts.
Finally, it's true that the opposition parties won't repeal the tax, exposing the phony nature of their manufactured outrage.
Win or lose, the tax is here to stay. And that is a great thing for you and your children.
When Mitch Hepburn died in 1953, the Toronto Star wrote this in an editorial to mark his passing:
"The public is indebted to Mr. Hepburn for the legislation enforcing the pasteurization of milk. In this matter Mr. Hepburn was enlightened as well as courageous. He acted because he saw child victims of bovine tuberculosis lying in a hospital."
The children who are or will be victims of our current economic downturn are not lined up in cots for us to see.
But they are very real, as is their suffering.
Unemployment leads to social isolation and self-destructive behaviour in adolescents.
Parental unemployment is a significant risk factor for abuse and neglect of children.
Children of the unemployed have a much higher admission rate to hospitals than children of employed families.
Harmonizing our sales taxes is not as simple as pasteurization to impact the looming misery of too many of our young neighbours.
But something must be done, and the HST is the single best tool to save jobs.
591,000 more jobs changes a lot of young lives.
Like Premier Hepburn said: "Done."