A complaisant Ontario electorate has rewarded Doug Ford with another majority government, even larger than his first.
For a political leader, to win back-to-back elections is really good. To win back-to-back majority governments is really great. But back-to-back landslides, the second larger than the first? Wow.
Mr. Ford came to the premier’s office with no experience in provincial politics. The first half of his first mandate was tumultuous. But the most important quality in a politician is the ability to learn. Mr. Ford learned to govern capably, in the eyes of a large plurality of voters.
The danger now is that he will learn the wrong lesson from his win.
“What Ford is proposing is steady, pragmatic, centrist governance, which is where Ontarians have been both on the Liberal and Conservative side,” said Robert Asselin, who is senior vice-president of policy at the Business Council of Canada. “People are saying: ‘Why would we change this government?’”
But the Ontario government needs to push past managerial competence and address underlying challenges. Mr. Asselin points to health care, where costs are consistently increasing above the province’s economic growth in gross domestic product, even as millions of boomers are retiring, and stressed-out doctors, nurses and support workers are leaving the profession. “It’s just not sustainable,” he said.
Laura Stephenson, a political scientist at Western University, warns of the serious harm that students have suffered as a result of the pandemic lockdowns.
“These kids are struggling,” she said. “We are at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kids and mental health, and kids and education, whether it’s the student unprepared for university-level exams and essays, or the student suffering from the loss of contact with friends and classmates.” It will be on Queen’s Park and other provincial governments to deal with the repercussions of those two lost years.
Increases in social spending require increases in growth. But as former federal finance minister Bill Morneau warned this week, Canada is failing to create the future-facing economy needed to sustain that growth. Ontario represents a large chunk of that economy.
When governments confront rising spending commitments and little or no real growth, they take on debt to at least maintain the status quo. But the combined federal/Ontario net debt has reached 100 per cent of GDP.
“It’s a concern,” said Derek Burleton, deputy chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank. The economy is currently running at pretty close to full steam, “yet the debt has not come down. In fact it continues to trend up.”
With a plethora of problems – from disrupted supply chains to rising interest rates to the fallout from the war in Ukraine – clouding the horizon, “the province is now more vulnerable in the event the economy hits a significant patch of turbulence,” he warned.
Mr. Ford’s advantage is that his government has a long stretch of clear sailing politically if it chooses to implement controversial reforms, relatively free of opposition from the Liberals and NDP.
Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats lost seats, though they remain the Official Opposition. The Liberals continue to languish in third place; Leader Steven Del Duca failed to win a seat. Both leaders announced they were stepping down – something else unprecedented. That’s how convincingly Doug Ford won. He could be leading a new Big Blue Machine.
Bottom line: Voters have given Premier Ford a renewed mandate to tinker, when tinkering is not enough. The province requires major changes to its economic base to finance rising social costs. Mr. Asselin points to the need to advance protections of intellectual property and convert that property into new or growing businesses, to exploit advances in agricultural technology and to move gains in biotechnology out of the lab and into production.
“Politicians don’t see value in this because it’s not sexy,” he said. “But they need to do this. It’s important. It’s the future of our country.”
Addressing the challenges to health care, education and productivity growth, while also bringing spending under control, is no easy circle to square. But Mr. Ford asked for another chance to take it on and voters agreed. We wish him well.
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