Ontario Liberals should be flattered, in a way.
They may be at the lowest point in their party’s history, lacking official party status after being reduced to seven seats in this year’s election. But the new Premier still sees them as enough of a threat that he’s going to extraordinary lengths to make it harder for them to get up off the mat.
Doug Ford’s announcement on Monday that his Progressive Conservative government will strike a legislative “select committee” to probe the manner in which the Liberals left the province a $15-billion deficit, promises to be more than just the usual feigned shock and horror from a new government at the red ink inherited from the previous one. That routine has already been playing out with a commission of inquiry’s finding of the $15-billion figure, announced last Friday, and a “line-by-line” audit soon to follow. This will be a full-scale attempt, through the calling of witnesses and grandstanding by MPPs questioning them, to prove the Liberals’ accounting lives up to Mr. Ford’s billing of it as “the worst political cover-up in Ontario’s history.”
Making that case should be tricky, since it wasn’t even the biggest “cover-up” during the Liberals’ time in office. It’s a stretch to call it a cover-up at all, since the deficit number has mostly risen from the Liberals’ $6.7-billion projection because Mr. Ford’s government is siding with Ontario’s auditor-general on a pair of accounting disputes. One revolves around obscuring costs of subsidies for energy ratepayers, the other around a mechanism for pension costs in place since the previous PC government. Both were well documented pre-election.
That the Tories still want to proceed with the coming political theatre hints at how they view Ontario’s political landscape. It also gives a sense of how much of a blood sport Ontario politics has become – already the case before Mr. Ford took office, and likely to become all the more so as he leaves his mark on it.
A cursory look would suggest Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats, who got 40 seats and 34 per cent of the popular vote in June, are positioned to be the Tories’ main challengers next campaign. There is even a case to be made that it’s in Mr. Ford’s interest to prop up the demoralized and deeply indebted Liberals a little, by providing party status or maintaining the province’s per-vote subsidy, to help maintain centre-left vote splits.
But the Tories have seen this movie before. Earlier this decade, the federal Liberals were similarly being written off. While there is no provincial equivalent of Justin Trudeau waiting in the wings, their brand is nothing if not resilient. And there are veterans of Stephen Harper’s government, some now working for Mr. Ford, who believe they should have been more focused last time on making sure the Liberals weren’t able to successfully reintroduce it.
Now, there is a chance to make up for it. Ontarians who don’t pay rapt attention to Queen’s Park won’t follow all the intricacies of how much new information is being revealed. But virtually every mention they hear of provincial Liberals in the coming weeks and months will involve them – including Kathleen Wynne, the unpopular former premier from whom that party needs to move on – being put on the defensive about the mess they left behind. It won’t preclude the Liberals from eventually competing again, but it will make it a little harder for them to do so.
There are premiers who would have worried that any benefit to them from staging this sort of spectacle upon taking office wouldn’t be worth its unseemliness; that using a thin pretext to further beat up on Ms. Wynne, after she suffered a humiliating defeat, was cruel; that they’d be encouraging distrust of the entire political class by seizing any opportunity to work words like “corruption” into the news cycle.
But Mr. Ford is the embodiment of how such concerns have come to seem quaint. If there weren’t already so much distrust among voters – caused, to some degree, by parties’ increasingly tribal willingness to forego civility as they impugn one another’s integrity – they wouldn’t have been willing to send a chaos agent like him into Queen’s Park.
Now, it will get a little brutal still. The Liberals aren’t in much position right now to push back against a Premier reluctant to let any fight go, but everyone on all sides is getting notice that with Mr. Ford in the Premier’s Office, they have cause to swing harder at each other than ever before.