Welfare Fraud

www.canadiansocialresearch.net/onbkmrk3.htm: Canadian Social Research Nerwork Newsletter-February 2010

Morgan Duchesney: 2004


One of the major stated goals of the Common Sense Revolution was a crackdown on welfare fraud. The Common Sense Revolution was the PC government’s neoconservative blueprint for political and social change. Ironically, it is no longer possible to access a copy of this lauded document from government sources. I say ironic because while this document is inaccessible, the revolutionary changes it ushered in will affect Ontario far into the future. I was obliged to organize various segments of the Common Sense Revolution in order to gain a sense of its main themes and the original spirit of the manifesto.

This essay examines how the Progressive Conservative (PC) government of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves has dealt with the issue of welfare fraud. Harris governed from 1995 to 2002 when he retired and was replaced by his former finance minister Ernie Eves. Eves came out of political retirement and left his job with the bank Credite Suisse. Eves initially tried to distance himself from the harsh policies of his predecessor but reversed his position during the 2003 provincial election in a vain attempt to appeal to Harris supporters.

I will employ various theoretical perspectives to illustrate both how and why the PCs implemented their welfare fraud policies. The why is ideological and as to the how; I will attempt to grapple with the concept of governmentality. This targeting of the poor with harsh criminal sanctions has been one of the trademarks of Ontario’s PC government and is symptomatic of the rise of neoliberalism in Canada.

I plan to conduct a discursive analysis of the academic, print media, Internet and government literature dealing with the topic of welfare fraud in Ontario. I am interested in this particular topic for many reasons but particularly because the statistics don’t justify the government’s claims that welfare fraud had reached epidemic proportions in Ontario. Since the introduction of the zero tolerance policy in April 2000 there have been 106 convictions for welfare fraud among a recipient population of approximately 700, 000 provincewide. This is no epidemic but the policy is widely supported by the public.

These observations led me to an interest in comparing the government’s treatment of welfare fraud with its treatment of corporate fraud. The recent Enron scandal and the whole insider trading issue have forced both governments and the public to consider the reality and the gravity of rampant corporate fraud. These frauds dwarf any damage that may have been inflicted by individuals ‘cheating’ welfare to earn undeclared income.

That being said, there are many documented cases of individuals receiving welfare while working full time; receiving employment insurance benefits and also receiving welfare under multiple false identifies. However, the provincial government and the mainstream media have made no effort to distinguish these genuine frauds from those of people earning a few undeclared dollars to pay the bills. To address this failing I will discuss the time-tested phenomenon of scapegoating, and suggest that this scapegoating furthered the acceptance of fiscal retrenchment of the state in its funding of social programs.

The Common Sense Revolution, simple and emotive in structure, was introduced to the people of Ontario in 1994 while they were reeling from the ricochet effects of the U.S. recession of the early 1990s. This manifesto was the political and ideological blueprint that facilitated the first PC electoral victory in June 1995. Inherent in the Common Sense Revolution was the Ontario government’s intent to remake Ontario in the image of a corporation. Later in the paper I will offer a larger discussion of neoconservatism and its relation to the better-understood concept of neoliberalism.

Both Mike Harris and his successor Ernie Eves have benefited from the inequities of our electoral system to form majority governments elected by a minority of voters. Now the liberals have replaced the PCs and the same electoral problems exist. Our ‘first past the post’ electoral system and voter apathy are mainly to blame for this situation. The young and poor do not vote in large enough numbers to make their opinions count. In the 1995 election 65% of eligible voters cast a ballot. On October 2, 2003 it was closer to 52%. This has produced a situation where the New Democratic Party (NDP) increased their popular support but lost official party status. This is important because the NDP and the Green Party are the real opposition. The Liberals are hobbled by the pervasive and sweeping legislative ‘reforms’ of the previous administration. As well, they share with their PC forerunners a tendency to embrace neoliberalism so they are unlikely to take Ontario back to its pre-Harris sensibilities.

Of primary theoretical interest to me are the work of Nikolas Rose and his collaboration with Peter Miller, who wrote about the “downsizing and reshaping”, of social programs in terms of risk theory. I will also examine the creation of subjectivities by government; the application of the risk model to the government’s treatment of welfare fraud and the means by which the government has eroded Ontario’s version of the welfare state. Of special interest to me is the concept of zero tolerance borrowed from the U.S. actuarial justice model and lifetime eligibility bans for those convicted of welfare fraud. A comparison of the government’s treatment of corporate fraud will be useful to demonstrate the subjective relativity of the concept of fraud. Welfare fraud is the only crime under Ontario’s provincial offence authority punishable by a lifetime eligibility ban. As well, Ontario is the only Canadian province with a zero tolerance/lifetime ban upon criminal conviction for welfare fraud.

Such coercive measures directed against the poor are indicative of the irony of neoconservatism’s libertarian espousal of non-intervention in the affairs of private citizens. Intervention in the affairs of the poor is easily justified because they are identified as non-contributors to the national wealth. The economic facet of neoconservatism, neoliberalism; is the dominant global paradigm. It involves a firm belief in the beneficent power of unrestricted capitalism. An example of this is the theory of ‘trickle-down’ economics where financial benefits are said to flow to the poor as a result of the success of the wealthy.

I contend that the political, social and economic turmoil that has wracked Ontario over the last eight years is not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it is a local example of a global phenomenon where nation states and local (provincial/state) governments are re-arranging government and society to suit the needs of local and global capital in a regime of capital accumulation. In Canada, Alberta’s Klein government initiated the so-called tough love approach to welfare that inspired Mike Harris to apply it in Ontario. Recently, the government of British Columbia has been busily reorganising itself like a corporation under Gordon Campbell’s Liberals. At the federal level, the Canadian Alliance has been exerting pressure on the Chretien Liberals to further embrace neoliberal economic policies. The recent merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties will exert fiscal austerity pressure on Canada’s new Prime Minister, Paul Martin.

The federal Liberals have been generally responsive to neoliberalism by embracing international trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and by joining organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). This trend began under Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who was a contemporary of U.S. neoconservative president Ronald Reagan. Ontario’s former Premier Mike Harris often claimed to be a free trade advocate and he has recently been courted as the obvious leader of Canada’s fledgling united Right, despite his unilingualism and his alienation of Maritimers and Quebecers.

Further, the methodology of this essay will generally involve analysis of relevant journal articles, academic works, newspaper and articles, government documents and historical accounts dealing both generally and specifically with the Ontario government’s treatment of welfare fraud. To conclude, I will offer a comparative analysis of the Ontario Securities Commission’s (OSC) treatment of corporate fraud versus the Ontario government’s response to welfare fraud. I will cite the case of former Corel CEO Mike Cowpland who recently had his second appearance before the OSC.


Nikolas Rose writes in Powers of Freedom that, “…even those occupying demeaned categories (discharged prisoners shifted to halfway houses, drug users in rehabilitation centres…[or welfare recipients] have their expectations, rights and responsibilities contractualized” (Rose 1999; 165). OntarioWorks is the Ontario government’s underfunded version of workfare or work for welfare. It is a public application of the private model of contractualism. Unlike many U.S. jurisdictions, Ontario has not privatized welfare delivery although it has retained the services of Accenture Consulting to reorganize the welfare system and identify highly valorized ‘efficiencies’. Accenture did the same in New Brunswick and is now courting the government of British Columbia. There has been great pressure from the corporate sector for the Ontario government to privatize the delivery of welfare services but for reasons unknown to me, they have thus far resisted. Perhaps, for propaganda purposes, they wished to be seen as the only protector of the public purse and were disinclined to share the welfare reform glory with a hired contractor.

Rather than be a passive recipient of welfare benefits, the welfare recipient in Ontario in 1996 was suddenly subject to a new regime called OntarioWorks that had three main objectives. According to Making Welfare Work: Report to Taxpayers on welfare Reform these goals were:

-ensuring that people on welfare take responsibility for finding work and becoming self-sufficient
-providing an effective transition to employment
making welfare fair for people who need help and for the taxpayers who pay the cost
The program purported to provide:
-practical help in finding a job
Community participation to build skills…
-basic education and job skills training
-Learning, Earning and Parenting (LEAP) to help teen parents break the cycle of dependency
-employment placements
-earnings incentives (Ministry of Community and Social Services: July 2000)

Insufficient funding, poor planning and resistance from the volunteer agencies expected to provide the positive experiences to OntarioWorks clients have robbed the program of most of its potential to assist welfare recipients. The volunteer agencies generally objected to being expected to act as surrogate social workers and inform on absent welfare volunteers, thus avoiding an unwanted surveillance role. According to a recent Critical Issues Bulletin-Surveying US and Canadian Welfare Reform,

Some evidence suggests that OntarioWorks reform is not as sweeping as was first thought. Evidence indicates that community participation is mainly voluntary in that participants often organize relevant activities by themselves. Moreover, the program has also recently experienced implementation problems as a result of insufficient funding (OECD: 1999). (collection.nlc.bnc.ca: Sept.7 2000 p.1)

In Powers of Freedom Nikolas Rose writes of the new meaning of unemployment benefits in an advanced liberal state, “…it is no longer a right of citizenship but an allowance which must be earned by the performance of certain duties, and labor alone is to be the means by which the poor can acquire the status of citizen – a status which is itself now increasingly a matter of consumption rights” (Rose 1999; 164). While Rose is commenting on employment insurance, I choose to apply his comments to OntarioWorks because of the new conditions of mutual obligation implied in the OntarioWorks contractual arrangement. It is different from employment benefits because, as I will elaborate later, employment benefits are paid to those unemployed individuals who have directly contributed funds to the employment insurance scheme. Welfare beneficiaries contribute financially in an indirect way through whatever taxes they may have paid.

Rose writes, “…the citizen is to become a consumer, and his or her activity is to be understood in terms of the activation of the rights of the consumer in the marketplace (Ibid). Under OntarioWorks, the able-bodied welfare recipient must agree to the education/retraining terms set out by the government. Failure to do so will result in the reduction and/or termination of benefits.


Writing in 1984, Roger Gibbins and Neil Nevitte said, “There is no single, widely-acknowledged Canadian neoconservative manifesto…” (Rovinsky 1998; 5). They were certainly correct at the time but the passage of ten years would deliver just such a manifesto. Perhaps the most well known of the Harris PCs many accomplishments is their 1995 election platform, the Common Sense Revolution. This truly revolutionary program was a resounding success and was encored by 1999’s Blueprint: Mike Harris’ Plan to Keep Ontario on the Right Track. The Common Sense Revolution was a brilliantly seductive catchphrase because it relied on the assumption that everyone understood and possessed ‘common sense’. Also, in 1995, Ontarians were tired of hard times and had little use for NDP Premier Bob Rae’s social engineering. It did not matter that the Rae government was struggling to cope with the crippling echo effects of the massive recession then occurring in the U.S. and the financial policies of Canada’s deficit-fighting federal government. Bob Rae’s government was doomed from the start and his half-hearted socialist experimentation eventually backfired on him. The integrity of his social democrat credentials was weakened when, upon leaving government the former Rhodes Scholar gravitated to a Bay Street law firm.

… the NDP government faced a severe economic recession, exacerbated by the high-interest rate monetarists policies of the federal government and the Bank of Canada, to which it responded in Keynesian fashion by increasing borrowing and spending. The result was that the budget deficit, and the accumulated provincial debt, began to rise along with unemployment (Knight 1998; 108).

The time was ripe for strident, emotive appeals to the closet revolutionary in the Ontario voter. No matter that revolutions are traditionally instigated by the weak against the strong. The Harris government craftily tapped into the resentments, fears and unspoken prejudices of suburban, rural and wealthy urban Ontarians. They problematized the welfare system and invented a crisis of welfare fraud much as they did in the public education system. I refer here to former education minister John Snoeblen’s infamous comments about, “…creating a crisis in the school system…” to justify the coming spending cuts. The problemitization of the welfare system provided an excuse to slash welfare funding and identify in the welfare cheat a useful and vulnerable enemy. As Foucault writes in History of the Present, “ …problematization is not an effect or consequence of a historical context or situation, but is an answer given by definite individuals…” (Foucault 1988; 17). The authors of the Common Sense Revolution were these definite individuals. Much careful research involving focus groups and townhall meetings had identified a number of key demographic groups (rural, suburban and wealthy urban voters) who were not only supportive of policies like welfare reform and tougher justice but who were also politically active and highly motivated to vote. The PCs had found their supporters and Harris’ inner circle realized that they could play to these people and more or less ignore the rest of the citizenry.

This type of populism would come to characterize the Harris PC’s governance. Time and again they would claim to represent the wishes of the majority. In fact, they were and are merely representing the wishes of the powerful and the politically active that voted PC. What really happened in 1995 and again in 1999 was that the majority of those who actually voted cast their ballots for the PCs.

Before I go on to deal with the Common Sense Revolution itself, I will quote some remarks by Herbert Marcuse on common sense as mentioned by University of California professor Judith Butler on March 20,1999:

Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense…. Hebert Marcuse once described the way philosophers who champion common sense scold those who propagate a more radical perspective: “ The intellectual is called on the carpet…. Don’t you conceal something? You talk a language that is suspect…We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you.” The accused then responds that “ If what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he probably would have done so in the first place” (Lists.ccs.carleton.ca:July 21, 2003).

These remarks accurately sum up the Harris government’s populist stance and its disdain for academic intellectuals whom are often derided as members of an impractical and resistant elite.
The actual Common Sense Revolution was the brainchild of Tom Long, Leslie Noble, Alaister Campbell and to a lesser extent Mike Harris. They called themselves the ‘Bradgate Group’ after the Toronto hotel where the final version of the plan was hammered out. These ideologues had the future Premier’s ear and there was a great deal of mutual respect and admiration between them. They were all true believers in the neoliberal doctrine of trickle-down and supply side economics: tax cuts, reduced government spending, a shrunken public service, a harsh law and order justice agenda and weakening of environmental legislation to make life easier for industry. As Ibbitson wrote in Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution,
The challenge was to convince the electors that the Tories both believed their own platform and were prepared to implement it. The solution was a document they would call The Common Sense Revolution. Whether you love it or hate it, the CSR, as it came to be known, is unquestionably the most ideologically innovative and politically successful manifesto in Ontario political history…. The document’s duality is crucial. The CSR was both an election strategy and a statement of neo-conservative political philosophy. Its creation was both an exercise in communication and policy (Ibbitson 1997; 63).

The recent courting of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris by the new Conservative Party of Canada is evidence that neoconservative sentiments have spread from Ontario and Alberta to the rest of Canada. Harris, the icon of Ontario’s recent period of populist neoconservatism; was seen as a natural leader of the new, national party. One of Harris’ greatest political assets was single-minded determination to stay the chosen course. There is still debate over the value of this determination, especially since many of the PCs bold strokes were well meaning but poorly planned. A book review article in the West End Flyer, an Ottawa weekly paper, adds an interesting commentary on the Harris government’s zealotry and zealotry in general. In his 1951 book, The True Believer, sociologist Eric Hoffer,

… describes the true believer as a person who has the ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard.’ The true believer ‘cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength in faith manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move” (Wood, October 22, 2002; 3).

The Bradgate Group was certainly an assemblage of true believers and Harris subsequently went on to ignore a plethora of inconvenient realities which stood in the way of his narrow vision.
The Common Sense Revolution was the winning factor in the 1995 provincial election that stunned Ontario and national political pundits who couldn’t believe that a relative political lightweight like Mike Harris could win such an overwhelming majority. The PCs formed a majority government based on their winning 45% of the popular vote. It is again interesting to note that the PCs were supported by less than half Ontario’s voters but still claimed to represent the majority of the population. The following is a brief description of the CSR drawn from an Ontario PC Party Caucus website:

In May 1994, one year before the Harris government was elected, it introduced a five point plan called The Common Sense Revolution. It was a plan developed through hundreds of consultations with the people of Ontario…
We promised that we would, if elected, carry out this plan.
You told us to cut taxes and create jobs and opportunities.
You told us to balance the budget, reduce government spending and make better use of valuable tax dollars.
You told us to do all of this while protecting services health, education and community safety.
We promised we would-and we’re keeping that promise to you. The booklet outlines the Harris’ government’s major milestones to date…:
1. Lowering your taxes.
2. Prioritizing government spending.
3. Reforming education.
4. Reforming welfare.
5. Reforming healthcare.
This is the Common Sense Revolution: the plan to create jobs and turn Ontario around. No hidden agenda. No juggling. Just the straight, unvarnished facts:
- the creation of more than 725, 000 new jobs in the next five years
- a 20 % cut in non-priority government spending, without touching the healthcare budget
- a 30 % cut in provincial income tax
- the elimination of bureaucratic barriers to jobs, growth and investment
- doing better for less
- a balanced budget in four years
We believe this plan represents the best way to reach our destination: more jobs, lower taxes and less spending…That’s what the Common Sense Revolution is all about. (www.ontariopccacaus.com: December 7, 2000).

All of this hopeful jargon looks and sounds promising and very responsible but as I will now detail, may of the promises were only partially kept and persevering with a bad idea is a false accomplishment. I refer here to the previously mentioned concept of the ‘true believer’, someone who is fanatically devoted to an idea no matter what the consequences. Of particular interest to me is the absence from this early version of the Common Sense Revolution of details regarding the true extent of its effects of welfare recipients. Harris actually gained votes from the poor, who rarely vote, because he promised useful employment training for welfare recipients. This turned out to be OntarioWorks, or workfare. The main value of Ontario Works was its role as a public relations tool for the government. Workfare programs are only useful if they are properly financed and have as their genuine goal the betterment of the poor. This was and is not the case in Ontario.

In April, 2001 the Region of Ottawa-Carleton’s Social Services department was obligated by the provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services, under pain of provincial funding cuts; to place at least 15% of their welfare recipients in workfare. The quotes in this section come from an Ottawa Citizen article by Ruel S. Admur, a former supervisor with the region’s Social Services department. Prior to the imposition of this requirement, the city had in place a flexible and responsive, “… voluntary workfare program that placed people in programs addressing their interests and abilities…. the program was appropriate for the objectives set out by the province: to help people ‘acquire work skills, to network, to gain self-confidence and to find a paid job’” (Ottawa Citizen, April 5, 2003; C8). This failed to satisfy the government who actually threatened to cut the city’s social services funding because they were channeling suitable clients into decent jobs rather than workfare placements. More than anything else this demonstrates that the, “…phony character of Ottawa’s workfare quota is of a piece with the Ontario program generally…. It is well known in the field (social work) that all the workfare programs in North America have failed miserably…” (Ibid.). It would simply be too costly to run really useful workfare programs neoconservative politicians introduce such programs as vote-attracting ‘tough love’ measures that do more to promote an ideology than the welfare of the poor.

The negative effects of these so-called reforms are still being felt in Ontario. It has been said that Harris’ sweeping changes will incredibly difficult to reverse because of their depth and breadth. While it is a given that capitalism breeds a concentration of wealth and promotes inequality through ‘natural selection’ there is no compelling moral argument available to convince me that this is the best possible course. Higher tuition, increasing utility prices, greater pollution, overworked teachers, overstressed students, growing hospital waiting lists, increased homelessness, growing rates of clinical depression and numerous other adversities are the dark side of the Common Sense Revolution. This is the side the PCs don’t want to discuss, or if they do discuss the negative they blame everything on globalization and emphasize the necessity of Ontario’s competitiveness.

The most startling feature of the Common Sense Revolution was its extreme embrace of neoconservative ideology in a province with a history of electing moderate conservative governments. Pre-Harris conservatives like former premier Bill Davis were generally cognizant of the fact that it was wiser to attempt to gain consensus than govern by barely-debated omnibus legislation. There seems been a great deal of confusion in the public mind about the nature of conservatism in Ontario. The government has been careful to avoid any association with the term neoconservative, presumably because of the negative connotations. The Common Sense Revolution was based on a unique political hybrid phenomenon described by O’Malley, who writes and quotes in Volatile and Contradictory Punishment:

I would suggest that what has passed for neoliberalism may better be understood in terms of the well-worn notion of the New Right. Broadly speaking, the New Right consists of two distinct and often-competing trends of thought: a neo-conservative social authoritarian strand, and a liberal free-market strand (Levitas et al., in O’Malley 1996; 7).

One of the defining themes of the Common Sense Revolution was its hostility toward the equalizing communalism of the welfare state like social assistance benefits. On this matter, both neoconservatives and neoliberals share common ground. Again, as O’Malley explains in Volatile and Contradictory Punishment, “There is also in neoconservatism hostility to welfarism that would give common cause with the neoliberals, for welfare mechanisms tend towards the elimination of inequalities…. Accordingly, like neoconservatism, neoliberals are hostile to welfarism and to the equalizing tendencies of state intervention” (Ibid). Interestingly, such themes are rarely discussed in the mainstream media. This is unfortunate because often, citizens are identifying with political parties and ideologies they understand only in an incomplete way. This partial comprehension leads them to make uninformed decisions.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this hybrid ideology it its capacity to justify the means it uses to achieve its ends. Byron Montgomery discusses the use of the ‘Big Lie’ by PC strategists as a propaganda device to confuse the population and thus free the government from genuine accountability:

One thing that didn’t change in their second term was the Harrisites penchant for the Big Lie…. they have certainly used the Big Lie to convince people that their acts are justified. As…Guy Giorno, now the Premier’s chief of staff, once wrote, “never question the efficacy of the Big Lie.” Whether it was welfare or crime or whatever, they just kept pouring it on…. lies repeated often enough certainly take on the legitimacy of common sense” (Montgomery 2002; 154).

Throughout history, regimes infinitely worse than the Harris/Eves PCs have made excellent use of this tactic to justify and sanitize their policies. It is a matter of saturation. The Ontario government initially employed a whirlwind advertising campaign that offered so much information on spending and spending cuts that the voters became confused about the relationship between ‘new’ spending and the services it was meant to provide. In reality, most new government spending announced after the wholesale retrenchments of 1995 to 1997, came nowhere near the original funding figures in terms of program spending. The same confusion applies to the government’s announced figures on welfare fraud convictions and the resultant savings in public money. The former government’s carefully-crafted reputation for careful fiscal management is now in tatters amidst revelations that the deficit left by the defeated PCs may be as high as $5.4 billion.

[PC premier] Mr. Eves, as you may recall, insisted throughout the election campaign that Ontario would balance the books in 2003-04, even though the credit-rating agency Standard and Poor’s said in May the province was running a deficit of $1.2 billion, the Dominion Bond Rating Agency forecast one of $1.9 billion, Toronto Dominion Bank chief economist Don Drummond said in August there was a “risk” of $3 billion and Mark Mullins of the [right-leaning] Fraser Institute said in September that it could reach $ 4.5 billion. Mr. Eves waved them off (Globe and Mail, November 5, 2003; A4).

The former government’s anti-deficit policies have not stopped the total provincial debt from rising and its attempt to govern along corporate lines is not consistent with the fact that most businesses run a deficit from time to time. In Prussia: The History of a Lost State, Von Thadden provides a commentary on 18th century Prussia that would have inspired the architects of the Common Sense Revolution, “…today’s reforms are often drafted only during times of financial surplus and thus tend to be shelved during periods of economic stringency…Prussia was at that time willing to institute necessary reforms, even during times of material shortage” (Von Thadden 1987; 128). While I question the necessity of the PC ‘reforms’, this passage makes historical sense if one substitutes Ontario for Prussia because the Common Sense Revolution was introduced during an economic recession. Von Thadden goes on to make another comment which could as easily have been applied to early 1990’s Ontario as 18th century Prussia, “…[the reforms] were inalienably determined by their time, as were the Prussian virtues of thrift and a sense of duty” (Ibid.). While thrift and dutifulness are hardly unique to Prussia or Ontario, I must refer back to John Ibbitson’s comments on the genesis of the Common Sense Revolution and how it resonated with large segments of Ontario’s population:

…they had affirmed the values behind it, had voted to return the province to first principles of thrift, balance and personal responsibility. These may have been simplistic precepts, and some would say that they ignored those who had nothing to be thrifty with, whose lives had been knocked askew, and whose circumstances were beyond their control. But for better or worse the province had opted, firmly, for something new: the old (Ibbitson 1997; 94).

Eighteenth century Prussian governance and Ontario’s 1995 response to the Common Sense Revolution are two centuries apart in time but are bonded both philosophically and practically in spirit and practice.


McMaster University sociologist Graham Knight refers to the style of the former Harris government as, “…strident and hostile…” (Knight 1998; 109). Harris was often described as blunt, tactless and divisive. It is certain that destructive labor strife and constant conflict in the education sector marred his tenure. Few people were neutral about Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution. This reaction was no accident. The Common Sense Revolution was presented 1994 in part to polarize voters and appease a pre-identified demographic. It was dramatically successful. Knight writes, “ The media, together with the Liberals and the NDP, interpreted the surge in support for the Conservatives chiefly as an expression of pervasive anger and resentment on the part of the middle class, and especially on the part of middle-class white males” (Ibid.). These affluent voters responded resoundingly to Harris’ “…us/them…” (Ibid.) message.
Included among the ‘them’ in this dualism were welfare recipients and the ubiquitous welfare cheat.

Marshall describes populism as, “…any political movement which seeks to mobilize the people as individuals, rather than as members of a particular socio-economic group, against a state which is considered to be controlled by vested interests or too powerful in itself…. sometimes described by those on the political Left as ‘authoritarian populism’” (Marshall 1994; 104). Laclau in Knight makes the point that, “…populism arises primarily in the context of a hegemonic crisis within the ruling bloc, and usually takes the form of a marginal but increasingly powerful fraction of that bloc appealing directly to the ‘people’ in its struggle to win power and cement its ascendancy over other factions” (Knight 1998; 110). This is exactly what happened in the Ontario PC party from 1992-1994 during its preparations for the 1995 election. Mike Harris was a populist dark horse candidate in the leadership race and the support he received from restless young PC activists tipped the balance in his favor. Moderate conservatism was thus banished to the shadows of the party. Although his populist neoconservative ideology resonated immediately with large segments of the population, it seemed as though Mike Harris had arrived out of nowhere. This is ironic because he was a long-serving MPP who had paid his political dues in the backbenches and on various opposition committees.

Mike Harris was came by his neoconservatism honestly as the son of a deeply conservative North Bay businessman. A key ingredient in this neoconservative was an antagonistic libertarian capitalist outlook on the world. In the PC’s ideology, “…this antagonism takes on an individualist, antistatist and anticollectivist character, a resentment towards ‘big government’ for unwarranted intrusion in peoples lives” (Ibid.). Ironically, the PCs would expand and centralize the power of government while shrinking the public service to facilitate certain ‘warranted’ intrusions. In regards to welfare recipients and especially those suspected of fraud, the ‘intrusion in peoples’ lives’ is warranted because they are part of the aforementioned ‘them’, that faceless other who provides a convenient scapegoat for the government and its highly-partisan supporters. I say highly partisan because it can be said that the PCs were elected twice to majority governments as much because by those who failed to vote as by those who voted for the PCs. As well, intrusion is an emotionally charged and very subjective term that is easy to misrepresent.
To conclude this section on the populist authoritarianism of the Harris/Eves PCs I will examine the concept of two-pronged antagonistic appeal. Knight says, “This appeal works through the articulation of an antagonism between the people and the power bloc, an antagonism that draws on and harnesses itself to lived experience in a way that resonates with popular grievances, injustices and discontents”(Ibid.). These grievances included a perception that government was too large and taxes too high.

During the early 1990’s, as previously, mentioned, the province was in the midst of a U.S.-fueled recession and voters had little sympathy for those perceived, like welfare recipients, to be draining the public purse. Knight describes the government’s advantageous use of this grievance as, “…the articulation of a second antagonism, one between the people and the social and moral margins” (Ibid.). To this end the PCs introduced a popular Welfare Fraud Hotline to encourage citizens to inform of those suspected of welfare fraud. Citizens were encouraged to step outside of their perceived powerlessness and strike a blow for hard-working taxpayers. Here I must return to the concept of Prussian discipline to complete my discussion of populist authoritarianism and welfare fraud.

Ontario’s economy was reeling in the pre-Harris years and the tough economic times conspired, “…to create a much simpler from of leadership…. allied to a concern that the modern consumer society may lapse into an ideology of laziness” (Von Thadden 1987; 121). This concern, in the case of the Harris PCs, was clearly directed at welfare recipients and the so-called ‘special interest groups’ that were actually any organized opposition to government policy. The special interest moniker was never applied to organizations like the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) formerly called the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI). As I wrote in a July 10, 2000 letter to the editors of the Ottawa Citizen regarding the concept of the special interest group:

The main difference between the John Clarkes (Ontario Coalition Against the Tories) and Thomas D’Aquinos (BCNI) of the world is that the former individual represents the poor who have no significant access to decision-makers while the latter enjoy regular, privileged contact with cabinet ministers and the prime minister (Ottawa Citizen, July 10, 2000; B6).

This type of privileged access to cabinet was also a feature of early PC Party conventions. Delegates, for a $1000 donation, were rewarded with an evening of socializing with PC cabinet ministers. The practice was discontinued after opponents of the government publicized it.


A suitable final commentary on the Common Sense Revolution is a discussion of the morality behind it. It has been called Calvinist by many or according to John Richards who quotes Linbeck in Retooling the Welfare State, “ The day the ‘Lutheran Ethic’ subsides in the population, and ‘Prussian discipline’ ceases to be exercised by the controlling administrators, the welfare state is in trouble” (Linbeck 1995; 13, in Richards; 1997). This ostensibly moral approach is also called the Protestant ethic and is basically a moralized valorization of individualism. Here again is a conservative contradiction and another area where neoconservatism drifts into neoliberal territory.

Mike Harris never made a secret of his distaste for collectivism or his strong advocacy of individualism and even libertarianism. This penchant for individualism was exemplified by the PC’s introduction of tax incentives for those who wished to send their children to private schools. Such a policy weakens the public system and ultimately divides the population into those who can and can’t afford the luxury of private education.


Max Weber linked the Lutheran or Protestant ethic to the development of modern capitalism. He claimed that, “…the rational pursuit of the ultimate values of the aesthetic Protestantism characteristic of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe [Germany-Prussian discipline] led people to engage in disciplined work and that disciplined and rational organization of work as a duty is the characteristic feature of modern capitalism-its unique ethos or spirit” (Marshall 1994; 425). Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris constantly espoused the value of paid employment over receiving a welfare cheque while rarely mentioning the difficulty for some of maintaining consistent paid employment. He always described himself as ‘working hard’ in government or the private sector. All the government’s literature pertaining to welfare is full of references to the pride that comes from a paycheque rather than a welfare cheque. “ Ontario has gone from having the highest number of people per capita on welfare in Canada to the lowest. But some people need more help to trade the welfare trap for the pride and self-sufficiency of a new job” (Government of Ontario, April 1999). No mention was made of whether or not those former welfare recipients were employed, dead or had left the province. It was simply assumed that voters would accept that these individuals were enjoying post-welfare prosperity.

Marshall says that Protestantism’s greatest contribution to capitalism was, “…the spirit of rationalism that it encouraged” (Marshall 1994; 425). Marshall continues in this vein with a statement that Weber had no illusions that Protestantism was anything more than one of the essential “pre-conditions” for the appearance of modern European capitalism. This rationalism manifests itself in the myth that everyone in a so-called free society has the chance to achieve material success if they simply apply their will and make intelligent choices. This is true up to a point but it doesn’t explain the fact that in 1994 nearly one in 10 Ontarians was subsisting on welfare. It is an impossibility that nearly one million people had voluntarily chosen destitute poverty. This simplistic Calvinist thinking credits, “…wealth as a sign of inner grace and poverty as indicative of moral failure” (Rovinsky 1998; 8).

During the early 1990s the PC opposition refused to acknowledge the effect on Ontario of the terrible U.S. economic slump. Likewise, when the U.S. economy began to rebound in the mid-1990’s and buoy Ontario, the Harris PCs claimed the economic boom was the result of their own wise management or rational decision-making.


John Richards is a former Saskatchewan New Democratic Party (NDP) MP and Simon Fraser professor. He claims in his book, Retooling the Welfare State: What’s Right, What’s Wrong, What’s to Be Done, that it is a mistake for us to ‘eschew’ Prussian discipline in our Canadian approach to welfare delivery. Prussian discipline, like common sense, is a rather misunderstood but widely used term. The concepts of common sense, hard work and sacrifice have an ‘everyman’ appeal that is difficult to refute and easy to defend because most people are understandably unwilling to distance themselves from allegiance to these universal precepts. Thus, these concepts possess a tremendous potential for use in propaganda and mass voter manipulation.

Mike Harris invoked Prussian discipline when he admonished Ontario’s teachers in 1998 to, “Do more with less, because everyone is working a little harder these days.” Von Thadden, in Prussia: The History of a Lost State, discusses how political leaders automatically and possibly unknowingly valorize the virtues of Prussian discipline during economically challenging times. Ontario in the early and mid 1990s was such a time and the PC party under Mike Harris would have appreciated the meanings in the following quote:

How many people are there today who make high demands upon themselves, and who are prepared to put in some service? How many people are still aware of or understand the moral value of service? More and more people are becoming prosperous, too comfortable by far to bother themselves with the kind of leadership that involves responsibility, achievement and of course, risk (Von Thadden 1987; 121).

The Harris/Eves years were full of emotive government appeals to citizens to offer their services on a voluntary basis. Church groups in particular were subtly pressured to pick up where government social services left off. The U.S. under George W. Bush has vainly employed the same tactic.

At such times, “…whenever there is a demand for thrift and achieve, one automatically thinks of Prussia” (Ibid.). While Mike Harris may not have been unaware of the history of Prussia and its superior virtues, his well-educated young advisors must have been. It certainly did not matter to them that modern Ontario was in an economically and geographically vastly superior position to that of 18th century Prussia. Ontario is not surrounded by hostile states but it is the most wealthy and powerful province in Canada and thus has always been the target of resentment from the other provinces. Thus, the Prussian dynamic applies to modern Ontario in another way that is incidental to the main application of duty, sacrifice and hard work during times of economic austerity.

The Harris PCs emulated the Prussians of the 18th century in that they were willing [for better or worse] to, “institute necessary reforms, even during times of material shortage…. because deliberate priorities had been established” (Ibid.). It was this boldness or single-mindedness (true belief) that polarized Ontarians and facilitated the PC’s massive overhaul of government.


The disorganization and political apathy of the poor has traditionally worked to their disadvantage and to the advantage of those who seek to isolate or exclude them from the social mainstream. This is an active process whereby the neoliberal state, with help from the corporate press, constructs and reinforces a public perception of the poor that ensures we will always have, “…dispensable citizens whose marginality is constructed through the process of representation of mass media coupled with their political isolation and fragmentation” (Torres 1998; 1). This perception is amplified by the lack of credible high-profile anti-poverty advocates.

Prior to the recent election of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals, Ontario was governed for nine years by a government espousing a seemingly contradictory blend of free market-friendly neoliberalism and highly-interventionist neoconservatism. I say contradictory because, while the PC government publicly announced the shrinking of the state, the state merely became more centralized in its power arrangements and embarked on a campaign of intensive and selective intervention. Business was given free rein through the reduction of pollution law enforcement, weakened labor standards and less ‘red tape.’ Simultaneously, the education system, corrections apparatus and social assistance regime was subjected to a massive restructuring that divested local offices of much of their power and increased the power of the central ministries in Toronto.

It is important to say here that the lot of the poor is unlikely to improve significantly under the Liberals. The new government is subject to the same neoliberal pressures of global economics and thus must appease their corporate donors, international bond rating agencies and the electorate. Therefore they must continue to perpetuate, “…political mentalities and governmental practices which have served to sharpen and naturalize the divisions between the autonomous and the dependant, the contented and the discontented, the have and the have-nots” (Rose 1999; 254). Our industrialized, economically-fixated and consumption-driven culture demands it.

The Torres quote at the beginning of this section mentions the role of the mass media in marginalizing or excluding those on the fringes of society who traditionally, “…seem to condense in their person, their name, their image all that is disorder, danger, threat to civility: the vagrant, the pauper, the degenerate, the unemployable, the residuum, the social problem group” (Ibid.). Earlier in the paper I discussed the use by the Harris PCs of ‘us/them’ dualism and later in the paper I expand on this by discussing the concept of scapegoating because it re-emphasizes and completes my discussion of exclusion.

Nikolas Rose writes of welfare citizenship, and its, “…duties and obligations…” (Ibid.; 255). In modern Ontario, if a welfare recipient fails to honor the obligations of OntarioWorks they lose their benefits for a greater or lessor period. If they are convicted of welfare benefit fraud, they are subject to legal sanctions and a lifetime ban. Conceivably, these unfortunates may fall to the bottom and join the truly excluded, “The underclass…welfare recipients, hostile street criminals, hustlers in an alternative underground economy and traumatized alcoholics, vagrants, and de-institutionalized psychiatric patients…” (Ibid.; 256-57). The chances of resurrection from this societal substrata are minimal. The state in Ontario may proclaim its wishes to emancipate these people but it is under great pressure to render them unseen. Legislation and aggressive police enforcement have removed squeegeeing and most begging from our streets. The street people or underclass are still there but they have been forced into a life of greater stealth and lower visibility.

One of the few remaining PC MPPs, Jim Flaherty, unsuccessfully attempted to have homelessness declared ‘illegal’. He proposed that vagrants be forcibly removed from the streets and subjected to appropriate treatment for mental illness or addiction. Ironically, this man was one of the harshest critics of the former NDP government’s experiments in social engineering. This is a good example of what Rose calls “spatial exclusion”. Space here limits me form citing other examples. Spatial exclusion is now being practiced in public, semi-private and private spaces to protect those Rose refers to as “the general public-normal people.”(Ibid.; 263). The underclass he refers to as “dangerous” can be, “…maintained in sheltered housing, day centres and the like, as a new array of dangerous zones of interpenetration comes into existence – the shopping mall, the car park, the railway station, the street: spaces requiring a ceaseless labor of administration of differences” (Ibid.). One need only walk the streets of Ottawa to see the militarized mall security guards, surveillance cameras and perhaps most insidious of all; the strategically-placed speakers broadcasting classical music to encourage the street people to disperse.


Many aspects of risk theory are applicable to an analysis of the Ontario government’s treatment of welfare fraud. Here I have attempted to employ those most relevant aspects.
In Ontario, the PC government has conjured up the mythical figure of the ubiquitous welfare cheat. These individuals, as Charles Murray says in Rose and Miller, “…were rational individuals, calculating that they could earn more or live better by not working, and using the welfare system to their advantage” (Rose and Miller 2000; 330). Back in 1995, the PCs were correct in their well-researched conclusions that Ontario was full of people who believed the province was swarming with career welfare cheats. This subjectivity was reinforced by a barrage of publicly funded television, radio, internet and print media advertising lasting from 1995 to its gradual dissipation in 2000. The government was quite liberal in its interpretation of welfare fraud statistics. As Byron Montgomery writes in the Common (Non) Sense Revolution:

…the biggest hotbutton issue was welfare and welfare fraud…. In a long recession…self-interest is the prime concern…. The Harris strategists understood this and played to it unmercilessly…. They claimed that up to 5% or more of all welfare money was being paid out fraudulently…. They had no proof of this. The real problem was that most people believed they knew someone…who was a welfare cheat…. when the economy has been bad for five years…catching cheats is a remarkably popular pastime (Montgomery; 2002; 74).

Right up to its final days in power, the Eves government was still keen to portray itself as the nemesis of welfare fraud. It became an election issue after Premier Ernie Eves allowed himself to be guided by a team of former Harris strategists. Before Eve’s mid-election campaign shift from ‘conservative with a conscience’ to hard-line neoconservative, welfare fraud was part of the platform but was infrequently mentioned.



A discussion of my conception of the state in Ontario is important to this essay because it is the state that is ostensibly acting against welfare criminals to protect public (i.e.taxpayer’s) funds. The deeper and more complete reality of the modern state in Ontario, Canada and most of the industrialized world is not what the average citizen thinks or hopes it is. Therefore, recognizing the complexity of the state contributes significantly towards understanding why the former Ontario government adopted such a harsh and punitive policy towards welfare cheats and welfare recipients in general. It is a local manifestation of global neoliberalism. I agree with Phillip T. Neisser in Collateral Language where he writes of the modern industrialized state, “…[it has made] a commitment to an economic outlook on the world that prioritizes supporting the current system of investment, profit and growth…” (Neisser 2003; 148). Thus, the interests who influence the political actors must see social programs like social assistance as a dangerous impediment to the bottom line of the ‘lean’ state.

The modern industrialized state is much more than the government and the public service. “The state is rather, a semimerged combinations of the biggest corporations, finance companies and banks, along with key financial, economic and military (or police) parts of the government. This state includes ‘advisory groups’ that form working relationships with top government officials” (Ibid.). These relationships are evidenced by generous corporate donations to government. By way of example, the final PC budget was broadcast from a TV studio at Magna Incorporated, a major PC donor. Belinda Stronach, CEO of Magna, was instrumental in backroom negotiations to merge the federal PC and Alliance parties into the Conservative Party of Canada. Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris declined to run for the leadership of this organization but the merger succeeded without him. Still, in spite of strife and contentions, both federally, and provincially in Ontario, the global neoliberal paradigm dominates in spite of superficial divisions.

…the corporate state is divided along the lines of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ alike when it comes to social issues…social issues…are not allowed to stand in the way of the main thrust of the state as such, which its drive to expand its own power, to secure predictable and profitable investment scenarios for global capital and to secure predictable relationships with other states (Ibid.).

In April 1999 former PC premier Mike Harris was careful to ignore social services when he spoke of Ontario’s economy, “…we need a strong economy to be able to pay for services that matter most to us – health, education and community safety…. we’ve also made Ontario much more attractive to investors” (Blueprint, April 1999; 8). Of course, attracting investment requires a solid reputation for fiscal management. Harris set out to conquer the provincial deficit and succeeded after four tumultuous years of protests and labor strife. One of the first 1995 spending cuts was a dramatic 21.6% reduction in welfare rates accompanied by a declaration of war on welfare fraud. Domestic and foreign investors were to understand that the Ontario was serious about its debt and deficit.


One of the primary goals of the Harris government was to erode the welfare state in the name of global neoliberalism. Part of this goal was to encourage a culture of individualism, where there was little state intervention in the lives of prosperous citizens. To accomplish this erosion, they set about under-funding social programs and reducing, eliminating and privatizing government services. However, they created a contradictory situation where, as Braithewiate writes in Shaming and the Good Society, “…the irony is that individualistic societies are given little choice but to rely on the state as the all-powerful agent of social control: the ideology of the minimal state produces a social reality of the maximum state” (Braithwaite 1997; 171). What has really happened in Ontario over the last 8 years has been an increased centralization of government power and authority by a government who campaigned on a pledge to shrink government. The public service did shrink but the power of the government was dramatically expanded. An example of the dangers of this cost-cutting centralization was the creation of social services appeals tribunals located in only a few urban locations. It is extremely difficult for some rural welfare recipients to travel to the city for their appeal hearings. Also, the Ministry of Community and Social Services expanded its audit programs at the same time benefits were slashed by 21.6%. This is a classic risk strategy where surveillance is employed against a high-risk category of subjects.

To improve the welfare fraud detection statistics, the government broadened the definition of welfare fraud to include unintentional mistakes. As Rose writes in Government and Control, “…government agencies use computer matching facilities to compare data from different sources in order to identify miscreants, for example, those making false claims for social security” (Rose 2000; 326). These so-called miscreants may have merely made an honest mistake like failing to report a form of income that they though they were entitled to keep. When such techniques are combined with the government’s actively encouraging people to informing on their neighbors through government ‘snitch lines’; the surveillance is multiplied and intensified.

Everyone in Ontario lives in what Deleuze referred to as, “…societies [society] of control…,” where citizens are manipulated to control themselves through their own freedom (Ibid.). This includes the potential and active welfare cheat who lives in a control society where, “One is always in continuous training, lifelong learning, perpetual assessment, continual incitement to buy, to improve oneself, constant monitoring of health and never-ending risk management” (Ibid.; 325). The fact that these activities are largely voluntary does not detract from their necessity; especially if one wishes to fully participate in our consumer society as it currently exists. Also, such a system of voluntary self-surveillance might well lead an individual welfare recipient to ‘cheat’ the system in order to accomplish one of the above self-regulatory activities. The operative word for this scenario is pressure. The citizens of such a society are under constant pressure to arrange their affairs against external standards. Such an exercise in outward looking to satisfy arbitrary standards imposed by others will paradoxically encourage individualism at the expense of social solidarity. Looking outward is supposed to foster concern for others and society at large but it does not. It merely breeds alienation and envy.


The motives of the Harris government in eroding the welfare state were both philosophical and ideological in nature. Philosophically, they plainly despised welfare recipients, especially those suspected of cheating. As Montgomery writes of former Premier Mike Harris,
Firstly, his opinion of people on welfare was that they were freeloaders trying to cheat honest citizens out of their tax money, and that the present and previous governments were complicit in making them that way. Second, he was so willing to stir up trouble that he and his people failed to do their research or they lied (Montgomery 2002; 74).

The author here is referring to media reports about a woman who had allegedly quit her job in favor of the ‘welfare lifestyle.’ The PC’s philosophical slant is a good example of their selective employment of social conservatism when it is convenient. While gambling, late bar closing and strip clubs were acceptable to them, they generally resurrected their social conservatism when it came to financial issues that had a useful moral dimension, like welfare fraud.

Ideologically, the erosion of the welfare state meant that tax cuts could be promised and delivered to wealthy PC supporters. The public wasn’t told about the government’s borrowing billions of dollars to finance these generous tax cuts. The PCs had a blind faith in free markets and promised Ontarians that tax cuts were the only way to stimulate the economy and create jobs.They were telling voters exactly what they wanted to hear even while they were actually harming the cause of fiscal conservatism. As Montgomery writes of the underside of the tax cut issue:

…if government revenues are not allowed to rise during good times-given away-if you will, in the form of tax cuts-then services can never improve, and quite importantly for economic conservatives, the debt will never be paid. Tax cuts have cost the Ontario $45 billion in lost revenue since they (the Harris PCs) took office. Given that they also increased the debt $20 billion by borrowing to finance their tax cuts…. The apparent return to fiscal health will be exposed for the mirage that it is (Montgomery 2002; 244).

This type of financial policy is indicative of the neoliberal slant of neoconservatism, which seeks to reward the individualistic virtues of thrift and individualism. It is logical because, at least temporarily, taxpayers are rewarded according to their income. Under Ontario brand of neoconservatism, it is assumed that wealth is the product of correct behavior. Conversely, poverty is assumed to be a punishment for sloth or indifference. The government has employed the victim dynamic as one way to justify its harsh treatment of welfare fraud. As Knight writes in Hegemony, The Media and New Right Politics, “ To be a taxpayer is to see the world through the calculus of self-interest, and to see oneself as the potential victim of others who cheat and abuse….” (Knight 1998; 120) Thus, the deserving wealthy become the victims of the undeserving criminal poor who give nothing in return for their welfare cheques. “ What this means is that news…. is often structured as a victim-centered discourse in which hegemony takes the form of a struggle over who are viewed as what Herman and Chomsky (1988) call ‘worthy’ victims…” (Ibid.; 119). The government is thus more willing to protect those it can identify with and those who espouse the same, “calculus of self-interest” (Ibid.).


The zero tolerance/lifetime ban for welfare fraud policy may soon be repealed by a newly-elected government eager to distance itself from the Draconian stance of its predecessors. However, they would be politically wise to consider retaining some version of the policy. I believe that they will retain a modified version of the policy, because it was extremely popular with voters and also because they have been stumbling through their first weeks in office and must do something to rescue their image. It is likely that a zero tolerance/lifetime ban will be retained as a hammer against instances of intentional long term fraud involving large sums of money. Such a move would mollify PC supporters and would appeal to fiscally conservative Liberals. Therefore, having been introduced and normalized, zero tolerance will remain as a deterrent weapon in the arsenal of exclusion. There is scant sympathy for welfare cheats and little public understanding of the day-to-day realities of the underclass.

Unfortunately, as the government of Ontario is merely an interdependent player in the global economy of corporate states, the general marginalization of the poor must continue. As the situation stands, labor flexibility, a low wage workforce and fragmented trade unions are what will attract investment to Ontario. Poor but empowered citizens who feel secure in their relationship with the state and their right to dissent will not attract investment.



Government of Ontario: (April 1999) Blueprint: Mike Harris’ Plan To Keep Ontario on the Right Track. PC Party Caucus, Toronto.

Ibid.: Promises Made…Promises Kept: On the Right Track


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