Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford fired a broadside at corporate Canada’s A-Team this week by promising that if elected, he’ll sack the chief executive officer and board of Hydro One Ltd., the province’s partially-privatized electrical transmission network.
Stop for a moment and consider the dynamics of this well-planned stunt. Mr. Ford aspires to lead the province that produces about 40 per cent of Canada’s economic output. To earn that job, he opted to attack a Hydro One board stacked with proven business leaders, not political partisans, and trash the reputation of CEO Mayo Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt is the real thing: he took over Saskatchewan Wheat Pool when it was essentially broke, fixed it and later sold it for billions.
Mr. Ford made this promise knowing full well that under governance rules put in place by the province, the Premier doesn’t actually have the power to fire Hydro One’s CEO. And Mr. Ford -- if he is the sensible businessman he purports to be -- also knows it’s hogwash to link Mr. Schmidt’s $6.2-million compensation package to rising electricity rates in Ontario.
Welcome to a post-Trump political dynamic that carries real risks to Canadian business. Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency by running against elites, even though he sprang from Manhattan real estate royalty. As President, Mr. Trump turned around and courted business blue bloods, with cabinet posts and tax cuts.
Mr. Ford, a small business owner who inherited his father’s label printing company, is also running an anti-elites campaign. The Hydro One threat shows the fellow who polls say will be Ontario’s next Premier is prepared to show a hostile side to big business, and uninterested in working with corporate leaders.
Mr. Ford has no ties to Bay Street. He seems proud that fact. There’s a long list of Conservative supporters in Toronto financial and legal circles, a potential kitchen cabinet to help him on economic policy. None of these donors and advisors have Mr. Ford’s ear.
It’s telling that Conservatives candidates with solid business credentials, including former Postmedia chairman Rod Phillips and former Toronto-Dominion Bank executive Peter Bethlenfalvy, opted to back other hopefuls in the recent PC leadership race.
Contrast Mr. Ford’s attitude to the way left-leaning politicians are conducting themselves. Ontario’s current Premier, Liberal Kathleen Wynne, has used retired TD CEO Ed Clark to help manage a number of tricky files (including the Hydro One deal that saw the province sell down its ownership stake to 47 per cent). She also bounces ideas off other establishment figures. Alberta’s Rachel Notley, a New Democrat, consulted with oil patch executives such as Suncor Energy Inc. CEO Steve Williams before rolling out new policies.
In Canada, socialists seem capable of working with capitalists. So why does an Ontario Conservative leader seem intent on alienating big business?
Some Conservative loyalists see Mr. Ford’s populist approach opening the door to Liberal and NDP rivals. Railing against the compensation of Hydro One’s CEO may get Mr. Ford headlines, but Ms. Wynne’s plan to subsidize the cost of daycare is actually striking a cord with the middle-class suburban voters who now determine Ontario elections.
In coming weeks, as Ontario’s June 7 vote draws near, Mr. Ford will set out his party’s platform. In a province with pressing issues of industrial competitiveness – factories seem to keep closing in Ontario and opening up in other jurisdictions – a coherent approach to cutting the cost of electricity will be welcome. So, too, would business-friendly moves on taxes and privatization, mixed with a dose of fiscal reality.
Those would help a future premier Ford build prosperity. Mindless populist attacks on CEOs aren’t going to get the job done.