As the Ontario election campaign draws to a close, it has left many of us elsewhere to ask: What’s happened to this once great province?
It seems like forever since the rest of Canada sat up and took notice of a premier that an Ontario vote produced. From the perspective of the West, at least, that might have been Progressive Conservative Mike Harris, author of the Common Sense Revolution and ideological soulmate of Alberta premier Ralph Klein.
But Mr. Harris eventually gave way to his Tory successor, the forgettable Ernie Eves, who easily succumbed to Liberal Dalton McGuinty’s alluring message of hope and change. Although smart and affable, Mr. McGuinty had troubles in his decade-long tenure, and is notable for a legacy of unfathomable debt and questionable public policy decisions that left his successor, Kathleen Wynne, to clean up nearly insurmountable messes. She led the Liberals to re-election only because her main challenger, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, was a disaster.
Mr. Hudak gave way to Patrick Brown, whose political career exploded spectacularly amid sexual harassment allegations. This paved the way for, well, the person who could be the next premier – Doug Ford. Is it something in the water? Clearly, this is not the province of John Robarts and Bill Davis anymore.
The decline in Ontario’s political class has mirrored a ceaseless deterioration in the influence the province once wielded nationally. As the country’s most populous jurisdiction, Ontario still has plenty of weight to throw around. But in many ways, economic and political power in Canada has been shifting westward, along with people. Ontario no longer has the voice everyone must listen to in the federation. Toronto is still the greatest city in the country, but beyond its borders, the province’s landscape is littered with towns and cities in deep, deep trouble.
But it is amid this despair that Mr. Ford has, in part, found his support. His promise to make Ontario great again may echo Donald Trump, but it resonates with those who don’t necessarily pay attention to the finer details (or lack of them) of a party’s policy platform. Mr. Ford has spoken to hard-hit areas of the province in the same way Mr. Trump did to the rust belt in the Midwest. The Conservative Leader’s charge that the province’s standing in Canada, its clout and prosperity, have been undermined and squandered by corrupt elites, strikes home with people.
Any comparison between Mr. Ford and Mr. Trump is an imperfect one. One is pro-immigrant (Mr. Ford) and one is not (Mr. Trump). But there is no question that Mr. Ford has watched Mr. Trump, seen what he has been able to get away with and decided to try it himself.
And we’ve watched with amazement from afar.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath would be unlikely to have the same impact on national affairs that Mr. Ford would. Her platform is designed to please everyone, and she doesn’t seem to care how much further she would plunge the province into debt to do it. For however briefly, she would join NDP premiers in Alberta and B.C. on the national stage. Mr. Ford would be a disruptor. He has already lined up against the federal government’s carbon tax plan.
He would have allies in the West, including Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, and Jason Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party, who could quite possibly be premier of Alberta in a year’s time. They have all vowed to fight the tax on some level. Along with Mr. Ford, they would make a formidable alliance of national leaders of a conservative bent. That said, it’s difficult imagining a Premier Ford being a person to whom his fellow provincial leaders turned when seeking guidance and insight on vexing issues of common concern.
As someone born and raised in Ontario, it’s sad and perplexing to see what’s happened to my former province. The country is stronger when Ontario is stronger. The country is better when Ontario’s political leaders aren’t consumed by scandal and crisis and the fallout from major public policy misfires that have burdened future generations with debt levels seldom imagined.
Ontario was once known for its stable, dependable leaders. It was a powerful and indomitable force that in many ways guided the political affairs of this country. Not these days. Today, from the outside at least, it looks like a province that has lost its way.