The last week in Ontario politics has been a hell of a year. The Progressive Conservative (PC) government, led by Premier Doug Ford, released its first fiscal update, and the party held its convention. Both were ideological, nasty affairs, reflecting a politically polarized province and a fraught relationship between the governing Tories in Toronto and the federal Liberals in Ottawa. Indeed, one might be inclined to see Ford’s emerging right-wing program as a metaphorical conservative call: “Aux armes, citoyens!” But the premier has committed to gutting support for Francophones in the province, so you’d have to say it in English (“To arms, citizens!”).
In its fiscal update, the Ford government claims it has reduced billions in spending and reduced Ontario’s deficit by $500 million (Canadian dollars) — down to $14.5 billion. The cuts are steep and targeted: Gone are the French language services commissioner and a planned French university, along with other commissioner spots (child and youth services and the environment) and three university satellite campuses. Also gone: rent control on new units and a surtax on top earners. Ditto planned spending by the former provincial Liberal government, including funding for child care, shelter spaces, and drug and dental fee reimbursements.
The Progressive Conservatives also reversed a Liberal-era ban on members of the legislature (including party leaders) attending fundraisers, known pejoratively as cash-for-access events, because, well, they’re events in which those with cash buy access to elected officials. In keeping with the logic, the government also raised the party donation limit by $400, from $1,200 to $1,600, and cut a per-vote subsidy for parties. It also decided to allow liquor stores to open later, in case you were inclined to drink the pain away.
In lieu of a planned $1-per-hour increase to the minimum wage — another Liberal policy — Ford is introducing a low-income tax cut, which critics point out won’t help most of whom it’s designed to assist, or, more charitably, is no panacea. So, even the bone they’re throwing to the marginalized is closer in size to the stapes than the femur.
Over at the party convention, Ford attacked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and top officials in his office with a jeremiad against the federal carbon tax. On the floor, former PC leadership contender and far-right-wing social conservative Tanya Granic Allen successfully shepherded a nonbinding resolution on gender identity theory. Calling it “a highly controversial, unscientific ‘liberal ideology,’” she concluded that “an Ontario PC Government will remove the teaching and promotion of ‘gender identity theory’ from Ontario schools and its curriculum.” Since then, Ford has clarified that the policy is dead on arrival. But it still passed — a moment in which the party grassroots said the quiet parts loudly. Granic Allen claims she was quoting Ford himself.
Five months into governing, Ford is still moving fast, ushering in policy and law rooted in an ideological agenda — not for “the people” as the premier claims, but for conservatives, especially those who are well off. Unsurprisingly, this entails undoing much of his predecessor’s work. The campaign is reminiscent of another PC premier’s plan. Mike Harris ran Ontario, wretchedly and regrettably, in the 1990s. He is not missed. Someday, Ford will be gone and not missed. But in the meantime, we’re at ideological war.
And that’s the point. If the playbook Ford has adopted was in the hands of another team, he’d call it class warfare or worse. But never mind the hypocrisy. He’s in power. He has a majority. He gets to do what he wishes. For now. But that comes at a cost.
One thing democracy does well is channel disagreement, conflict and even violence through rules and institutions, ensuring order and peace — each imperfect. And through elections, we ensure that power is transferred predictably. But Westminster democracy under a single-member plurality electoral system remains prone to policy lurch as one government suddenly gives way to another and the new one sets about undoing as much of what the last one did as possible. It’s wildly inefficient for citizens and industry alike. It’s even worse when the new government is led by a populist and controlled by ideologues and market fundamentalists who can’t see past their own shirtsleeves.
Today, Ford is remaking Ontario. He will succeed, for a time. Then, someday, he’ll be gone, and the next government will go about undoing as much of it as it can. The last Poll Tracker before the 2018 Ontario election had the PCs with 38.7 percent support compared with the NDP’s 35.5 percent. A week ago, one poll had Ford’s side at 34 percent, and with the Liberals — who nearly vanished in the summer— at 32 percent. Polls are snapshots, and the next election is years away. But just months in, the numbers don’t offer encouraging news for Ford, whose government has been bungling and scandal-prone.
Ford’s right-wing ideological program will hurt Ontario, especially the most vulnerable. Besides the harm it will do to those who can afford it the least, however, there is also the opportunity cost of forestalling the structural changes needed to ensure that as many people as possible can participate in the life of the province, seeing themselves reflected in their government: respected, included, supported and accommodated. The Ford years will be wasted years except for their service as a reminder that elections matter and that Ontarians deserve better.