Doug Ford keeps sending a very clear message about the test of Ontario’s political culture that he will provide over the next four years.
Again and again this week, the Ontario Premier defended his plan to use the notwithstanding clause – in response to a court ruling that his government’s overhaul of the Toronto electoral map in the middle of a municipal campaign was unconstitutional – by saying he is “standing up for,” “protecting” or acting with the authority of “the 2.3 million people that elected this government.”
The implication, beyond just trying to push back against perceived judicial activism, is clear. Mr. Ford figures that not many people who are aggrieved by what he is doing – who believe he is trampling Torontonians’ democratic rights, creating constitutional chaos, or both – voted for his party. So he’s happy to have them as foils.
As a matter of short-term political strategy, he is probably on solid ground. Most of his supporters, in suburban or small-town Ontario, likely don’t care deeply about this issue. Some probably feel more certain they voted for the right guy the more overheated the reactions – protests, talk of secession, a Toronto Star cartoon suggesting we’re on the path to fascism – coming from downtown.
But if this is the way he intends to govern, Mr. Ford is making a big bet on something that has not yet been demonstrated: a sustained appetite, among enough voters, for in-your-face governance and perpetual conflict.
When Bill Davis emerged this week to criticize Mr. Ford’s conduct, the 89-year-old former premier seemed like a relic of a bygone era, when his Progressive Conservatives prided themselves on moderation. Today, politics is a lot more polarized, and all parties (conservative ones especially) are more fixated on mobilizing existing supporters than winning new ones.
But it’s probably not a total coincidence that the longest-serving premier since Mr. Davis retired, and the PCs’ four-decade dynasty ended in the mid-1980s, is the Liberals’ Dalton McGuinty. Before getting mired in scandal and contributing to the urban-rural divide with his energy policies, Mr. McGuinty came closest to emulating Mr. Davis’s political formula – making a virtue of his own blandness as he straddled the middle of the spectrum.
The only premier who has come anywhere close to initiating us-versus-them fights the way Mr. Ford appears inclined to do, was Mike Harris, albeit less impetuously and with clearer policy purpose; while his government got a second mandate, the PCs were then shunted to the political wilderness for 15 years. The next closest, in a funhouse mirror way, was Kathleen Wynne, who eschewed Mr. McGuinty’s pragmatism in favour of a left-of-centre populism that welcomed fights with those who opposed such policies as raising the minimum wage; her Liberals’ reward was losing official party status.
A common bit of received wisdom among political strategists that might help explain patterns to date is that most voters don’t want any politician always in their faces. No government can avoid eventual fatigue, but being a constant source of tension might accelerate and intensify it to the point of exhaustion.
A second potential consequence of conflict is a gradual shrinking of a party’s tent. It may be that only a tiny share of the people who voted for the PCs this year are now reconsidering their votes. But the next fight will give cause for resentment to a few more. Those votes are unlikely to be replaced by new ones. In an electoral system in which a few percentage points can make the difference between majority government and humbling defeat, that’s a lot of risk to take.
It’s also a risk to the broader public interest, whatever the electoral outcome. Mr. Ford is not unusual among premiers in catering to supporters. But failing to maintain even a pretense of governing for everyone, openly pitting Ontarians against each other, threatens to exacerbate divides – ideological, urban-rural – and will make it harder even for future governments to offer common purpose in a society less civil.
Or maybe we already live in that world – after respect for political norms has eroded, and patience for pragmatism has declined as more voters feel left behind by economic or cultural change, and digital communication has helped make us more tribal – and Mr. Ford is a manifestation of it .
So long as Mr. Ford remains convinced that the minority of voters needed for a majority government remain solidly behind him, Ontario will continue to be part of an experiment in pushing that world’s boundaries.