Doug Ford’s victory was no fluke.
Not in the way that those horrified by the prospect of a right-wing populist in the Ontario premier’s office imagined it would be.
In the final days of the province’s election campaign, it was easy to explain away a looming majority government for Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. If they squeaked one out, it would be because of a favourable electoral map, vote-splitting among their opponents, low voter turnout – not because Ontarians really wanted them in power.
Oh, but they did. When the ballots had been tallied on Thursday night, the Tories had topped 40 per cent of the popular vote, more than Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals needed for a majority four years ago. They had done so in an election with 58 per cent voter turnout, the highest in Ontario this century. More total ballots had been marked in their favour, at over 2.3 million, than for any party in this province’s history.
If only Mr. Ford’s mandate were as clear in purpose and expectations as in numbers, what comes next would be a lot easier to predict.
Instead, the manner in which the PCs won all those votes means his new government will immediately launch into a chaotic struggle to find its soul – factions of conservatives battling for the ear of a premier without a defined agenda, trying to persuade him what that mandate really is.
Here is what we know about Mr. Ford’s policy priorities, from the campaign: He wants to cut taxes on corporate and personal income and fuel. He wants to increase spending on health care and infrastructure and (so far as one can tell) by further using provincial funds to relieve energy ratepayers. He intends to do all this and much more while steering the budget back to balance, without cutting a single public-sector job.
In other words, he has conveyed no priorities at all, because he has displayed no willingness to choose between incompatible things. So why did so many Ontarians support him?
Partly, it was because of who he is not.
Mr. Ford is not Kathleen Wynne. All changes in government are course corrections of some sort, and in this one, voters clearly wanted a personality change from a Liberal Premier they found technocratic, scolding, and disconnected from day-to-day realities. The PC Leader, wearing ignorance of government’s intricacies as an anti-elite badge of honour, could not have struck a sharper contrast.
Mr. Ford is also not a New Democrat. He would not have won a personality contest against NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who emerged as his main opponent when the Liberal vote collapsed. But candidate controversies and an advertising blitz by both the Tories and Liberals helped reinforce discomfort with the NDP’s brand – perceived amateurism and radicalism, bad memories of the Bob Rae era – while the Tories showcased star candidates to place more focus on their party than its leader.
But Mr. Ford did not just lead his party to victory by default with those turnout numbers.
He may have had unusually high negatives for an opposition leader, as many polls showed, but he also has an odd populist’s ability to make some voters fervently believe he is on their side, committed to tackling their struggles. Attend one of his rallies, accompany PC candidates knocking on doors, and you would hear variations of “He’s my guy because he gets it.”
And in that, his vagueness was likely a key ingredient. Not so much the ability to cherry-pick from among specific policy promises, overlooking the implausibility of implementing them all; the rally crowds tended to be least raucous during the small portions of his speeches in which he itemized tax cuts. But as he circled around to the same slogans – “For the people,” “Help is on the way” – it was possible to project onto him an understanding of what those coddled elites in the other parties just didn’t get.
To cash-poor suburbanites finding it impossible to get ahead despite working hard, he would make life more affordable. For those lamenting the loss of stable, well-paying jobs in manufacturing or other sectors undergoing upheaval, he would make Ontario open for business again. For communities where the local hospital was overstretched, he would end hallway medicine. If other premiers had failed to grasp the importance of some local infrastructure project, he’d get ‘er done. For those nostalgic for the values of yore, he would make schools get back to the basics on math and sex-education, restore respect for police, bring back buck-a-beer. To more business-minded sorts, he would focus on government living within its means.
Indulging all these expectations without acknowledging hard choices may have been an act of cynicism. It’s hard to see it any other way, when it comes to political professionals – many of them veterans of Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives – who staffed his campaign headquarters. They were preoccupied with getting Mr. Ford to election day, and now others will figure out how to steer his government.
But with Mr. Ford, it’s perhaps more genuine – which is not necessarily more encouraging. By many accounts and appearances, he is eager to be liked, and has a difficult time saying no. He may really believe that through force of personality, a no-nonsense focus on running government like a family business, he can make everyone happy. He knows less than probably any leader of a major party in any Ontario election about how Queen’s Park works.
And so we are now set for an epic contest among those who know more – members of his caucus, new government staffers, lobbyists and interest groups and PC eminences grises – to educate and try to persuade him which policies he must pursue and which he can set aside.
Fiscal conservatives in the PC ranks will try to persuade him that so long as he delivers on a few articles of faith – fire the high-paid head of Hydro One, go to war with Justin Trudeau on carbon taxes - voters will tolerate putting off some promises in order to get the books in order, especially if he says the Liberals cooked them. More populist adherents to his personal brand, rather than the party’s, will probably tell him voters don’t care much about deficits and he should focus on deliverables tangible in their day-to-day lives. (For tea-leaf readers, Mr. Ford has already announced Dean French – a Ford-Nation sort who served as campaign chair, and tangled with the political pros in PC HQ – as his chief of staff.)
But it will be more complicated than that, as the Tories are confronted with the incredible array of lingering decisions and ever-emerging challenges facing the country’s second-largest government – a transitioning economy, infrastructure and social-service strains caused by a growing and aging population, and others.
A common theory in PC circles is that Ontario is about to see a more empowered cabinet than it has in ages. With Mr. Ford lacking a concrete agenda, ministers could have great leeway to craft their own, so long as they’re moderately savvy about persuading him their preferred policies fit his broad goals.
That could be good. Among the complaints about Ms. Wynne’s government, from those who worked in or with it, was that decisions were constantly bogged down in the Premier’s Office. Mr. Ford’s could be more nimble and encouraging of initiative.
It could also be a mess. Cabinet could break down in competing agendas; ministers could push through dumb ideas that turn into boondoggles. Every bureaucrat who has been sitting on policies they could not sell to other governments, every lobbyist with a half-baked scheme to peddle, is about to see an opportunity.
So much of this, in the end, will depend on Mr. Ford.
Credit where it is due: He proved more adaptable this spring than many who knew him predicted. Based on his stint at Toronto’s city hall, he was expected to be too stubborn and convinced of his genius to take advice and show discipline while leading a party. Instead, despite being awash in controversies – from candidate imbroglios to a lawsuit from his brother’s widow that served as a reminder of the mayhem that follows his family – he resolutely stuck to script every day.
But spending a month reading the same lines off a teleprompter, offering scant opportunity for media or anyone else to elicit an unscripted word, is a far cry from the pressure and fluidity of running a government.
There should be no way now for Mr. Ford to avoid making hard choices, to leave so much ambiguity that supporters can will him into being whatever they consider his best self.
It’s time to reckon with what they wanted, in such large numbers, and whether he can deliver it.