By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Chris Young, CP.
The symmetry was uncanny. Doug Ford was ushered in as the new leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives under circumstances not unlike his predecessor’s own spontaneous departure: at the dead of night, facing a storm of controversy, and robbed of both dignity and pageantry. It was only a few weeks ago, I wrote to readers about the serious potential that lay before Doug Ford to assume the leadership of the party. In many ways, Ford matched my expectations by pursuing the leadership in the manner that he did: running as a brazen grassroots outsider, Ford challenged the integrity of the party’s insiders and their commitment to an open nomination.
What I couldn’t have predicted, however, was the chaotic scene that would unfold in the convention centre – angry attendees escorted outside – as the results remained contested. Ford’s win was so convincing, it took hours to confirm. A laser thin margin that illustrates a common misunderstanding regarding populists: their success is not predicated on popularity but the dissension they sow. Doug Ford is no Bill Davis, he’s not a popular or widely respected candidate as far as electoral history is concerned. He resonates, appeals, and panders to wayward, disaffected voters by indicting an anonymous “elite”; holding them responsible for the cost of living, the “direction of the country,” and the self-perceived sociopolitical persecution of some.
He offers in tow, a series of simple and communicable solutions to complex provincial issues that demonstrate his economic illiteracy and ideological incoherence. Ford might as well be promising to fix Ontario with magic pixie dust. He’s not an economic or social conservative or a market liberal or a socialist or a libertarian. But depending on what slips out of his mouth on any given day, he might sound like one! For a man who claims to be fighting for the little guy, he has a strange way of showing it by announcing his intentions to freeze minimum wage increases under false economic grounds; his plan to cut income tax for those making under $30K offers less support to working class families than the planned minimum wage increase and it does so while shifting the burden to provincial coffers. Although Ford loves to discuss the provincial debt ad nauseum, he’s promised new spending and tax cuts blatantly unaccounted for in his own “fiscal” plan: a $6 billion hole that Ford says will be tackled through unstated “efficiencies.”
From one side of his mouth, Ford tells voters that he believes “in the market dictating,” advocating for deregulating the housing market and not a moment later talks from the other side of his mouth, musing about directing the expansion of suburbs and incentivizing businesses with new subsidies.
Not unlike how in one breath, he burnishes his credibility with social conservatives and tarnishes it in the next. He’s demonstrated so much concern for the province’s children, he hopes to rollback sexual consent education – the intent of which is to inform children and raise the probability of them reporting molestation. It’s this same kind of “concern” for the well-being of children that presumably informs his position on abortion, for which he hopes to legislate required parental consent, and cannabis – which Ford has mused about putting in corner stores, while hand-waving away concerns with exposure.
The popular sentiment surrounding Mr Ford is that he brings chaos and unpredictability to the upcoming election – Jen Gerson writes “Doug Ford, chaos candidate” in Maclean’s, for instance – but I remain unconvinced. While Patrick Brown certainly possessed an unpredictability and an elusiveness, Doug is Doug and will reliably remain Doug, saying Dougy things throughout the whole of this dogged Doug campaign. He will run the election as an outsider on his meager municipal credentials and folksy disregard for the truth, naming and shaming “elites” for the ills of the universe. For this reason, Doug Ford, a predictable force of nature, won’t be the critical factor in how the electorate votes this June – as the more tactile of the two, the ball is in Kathleen Wynne’s court. How successful Wynne is at adapting her campaign to Doug Ford will decide the election.
There can be no doubt that anger in the province persists over Kathleen Wynne, but anger is an emotion not a conviction. Behind many a diatribe against Ontario’s unpopular leader is a perceptible superficiality. Voters are sure they hate the premier – they’re not sure why, but they know there’s a reason they’re supposed to. Let’s not forget that after a summer with the Fair Hydro Act in place, polls had the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals in a dead heat less than four months ago; there was no prominent movement in the polls after the launch of Patrick Brown’s ‘guarantee’ – indicative, not of mass intransigence, but a public that despite the histrionics simply isn’t tuned in yet. I would regard the ‘bump’ in the Tories’ fortunes over January as a product of media attention (good, bad, and neutral) and a personal resistance to punishing a party for taking sexual misconduct allegations seriously.
Eighty days remain till voting day and the fundamentals for a Liberal win are still present. RBC writes, “Ontario’s economy has been on a solid run in the past four years. It was among the provincial growth leaders in Canada.” The economy is performing well, hydro rates are down, unemployment has been steadily declining since Wynne’s election, close to half of respondents surveyed say they’re less likely to vote Progressive Conservative with Ford as leader, and the overall trade balance (interprovincial + international) has seen positive growth over the past four years. The challenge before the Ontario Liberals is getting voters to listen and hear out their case for re-election through the quaggy days of May and beyond.
Kathleen Wynne’s secret weapon has always been her personal strength, confidence, and determination – she’s a fighter. One of the more decisive moments from the last provincial election occurred during the leadership debate when Wynne defended her government’s spending, noting it had the lowest program spending per capital in Canada – to which a visibly gobsmacked Tim Hudak responded with “fair enough.” But that combativeness may not be enough for her to turn around this election.
Hilary Clinton, for instance, didn’t just win all three televised debates against Donald Trump, she humiliated him. Likewise, I always expected Wynne to sucker-punch Brown (intellectually speaking, of course) in a debate, but people aren’t supporting Doug Ford because they think he’s a genius, they’re supporting him because they think he’s honest and prioritizes the working poor. Attacking someone’s character in a debate carries risks, even if a legitimate case can be made Doug Ford is concerned more about his minor celebrity, book sales, and votes than constituents. Winning a debate against Ford means getting voters to listen – and to do that Wynne will have to surprise them, subverting their expectations with a turn to humility. Voicing her own regret that she hasn’t been able to resonate with the working class like the Ford family has might just ring true, especially when Wynne spent much of her pre-political career as a community activist in Toronto. For Wynne, this means relating to her opponent on priorities and distinguishing herself with a better execution plan.
To say the least, it should be an energized election, spurring a province-wide conversation on the value of truth. At least two political parties, whose canvassers and grassroots were heading into an election demoralized by unpopularity and infighting, will now approach this election galvanized by the opportunity to win and the stakes at play. For the Ontario Liberals, it means a chance to conquer populism, while for the Progressive Conservatives, it means a chance to validate their gamble on it.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.