After years of speculation, Canada is about to find out what happens when the populist wave that has swept much of the Western world overtakes one of its major political parties.
Only a couple of months ago, the looming election in Ontario seemed set to offer a change of face but not a dramatic change in direction. Under Patrick Brown, the Progressive Conservatives were trying to present a Red Toryism that would ease the minds of centrist voters tired of Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, but worried about spending cuts or a lack of modernism in social or environmental policy.
Now, courtesy of Doug Ford winning the pre-election contest to replace Mr. Brown at the Tories' helm, the election promises to be something much more important: a referendum on whether Ontarians are prepared to embrace a style of government more visceral and unpredictable and resistant to political and institutional norms than any they have had before. Many Liberals will like what that means for their heretofore slim prospects of winning a fifth straight mandate, not without reason. Ms. Wynne's approval ratings are so low, fatigue with her government transcending any specific policy grievance, that Mr. Brown's strategy of providing a low-risk alternative made sense.
That strategy might have been even more effective in the hands of leadership runnerup Christine Elliott, who notwithstanding her abandonment of Mr. Brown's carbon-pricing commitment practically screamed moderation every time she opened her mouth.
Mr. Ford, by contrast, is nobody's idea of a safe choice. He is loaded with baggage both personal and inherited from his late brother Rob, the Toronto mayor whose bad behaviour made international headlines, while Doug served as a city councillor and Rob's biggest defender. He is prone to saying deeply impolitic things – about women, the disadvantaged, other politicians. He lacks policy depth, or even a firm understanding of what the provincial government does. He is less personally troubled than Rob Ford was, but also less empathetic.
Polls of the general electorate showed Mr. Ford with much higher negatives than his leadership opponents. He seems an especially unlikely fit with the suburban women who have been pivotal to the Liberals' electoral success – especially after his expressed openness late in the leadership campaign to reopen the abortion debate, which he may be hard-pressed to drop after social-conservative candidate Tanya Granic Allen proved kingmaker. It's possible all this will make him so unviable that Andrea Horwath's New Democrats supplant the Tories as the choice of Ontarians who can't abide another four years of Ms. Wynne.
But there are smart Liberals who will concede that Mr. Ford scares them, not just because he offends their sensibilities, but because of what kind of opponent he could be.
Ms. Wynne's own election strategy probably needs to be rewritten. She had hoped to convey that despite her government's longevity, she was the best available change agent – a message informed by opinion research suggesting that while her likeability was unsalvageable, she might command respect as someone who would fight for Ontarians being left behind by their economy. That was contingent on opponents being seen as milquetoast defenders of the status quo, which is one description not applicable to Mr. Ford.
But more than that, as possible as it is to imagine many voters giving Mr. Ford the cold shoulder, it is equally possible to envision him tapping into Ontarians' anger toward both the Liberals specifically and the political class more broadly – catching fire in a way that has recently become familiar.
Mr. Ford is not Donald Trump, to whom comparisons will be made on a daily basis between now and Ontarians' June 7 casting of ballots. Skepticism of immigration, for instance, is not part of his formula; Rob Ford enjoyed considerable support from new Canadians during his successful mayoral run, as did Doug in his unsuccessful bid to replace him. He is somewhat closer to having a consistent small-c conservative worldview, and more capable of discipline. He was much less bombastic, while seeking the PC leadership, than Mr. Trump during his ascent to the U.S. presidency.
But everything we know about Mr. Ford makes the parallels too numerous to overlook. There is the simple sloganeering and attack lines against opponents (down to his campaign's apparent attempt through social media to label Ms. Elliott "crooked Christine"); the enthusiastic dabbling in social conservatism despite not presenting as the most devout of Christians; the hostility toward the media; the reputation as a bully.
And more importantly, there are the parallels between what he offers, and what is offered not just by Mr. Trump but by populists throughout Europe and elsewhere: validation to those who feel left behind by economic or social change, and believe that corrupt "elites" across all mainstream political parties are indifferent to their struggles.
That was evident even in how he ran for the leadership, particularly in the latter stages as his campaign suggested that party higher-ups were conspiring to keep someone like him away. You could see it, too, in the way he wore his lack of policy depth as a badge of honour – the implication being that he, more than the coddled bureaucrats and political lifers and ivory-tower elites normally around government, could through force of will impose common-sense solutions to return Ontario to past glories.
As relatively mild as he was when speaking publicly about his opponents during this leadership campaign, his past form suggests he will go unusually harshly at Ms. Wynne. And if he winds up in the Premier's office, what we know about him suggests that he will be much less beholden to orthodoxies – about what government must do, how it communicates, how cabinet decisions are made – than anyone who has occupied it before.
Maybe that makes him anathema even to habitual PC voters. Or maybe it makes him exactly what even many people outside his party's base have been missing in their politicians. Mr. Ford likes to boast that he transcends typical partisan affiliations to appeal to anyone weary of their traditional options. And the political climate could be ripe for that.
Ontario is hardly immune from factors that have powered politicians of Mr. Ford's ilk elsewhere. There are plenty of towns where traditional jobs in manufacturing or otherwise have dried up, there is angst about a perceived shrinking of the middle class and the cost of living, and there are many people who believe that urban liberals are imposing their values on everyone else.
There hasn't really been a test yet of what a politician willing and able to tap into those feelings might be able to achieve electorally here. Yes, Rob Ford managed to win in Toronto – seemingly a less hospitable market for this type of conservatism than other parts of the province – and Doug Ford didn't come that far from victory there himself.
But being elected to lead a municipality with a weak-mayor system is nothing like being entrusted to run the country's second-largest government.
Until that test is answered, nobody on any side of Ontario politics – nor anyone elsewhere in Canada trying to glean where the national discourse is going – should be feeling anything close to comfort.
Conservatism may have just taken the kind of dark turn that keeps even unpopular Liberals in power. Or the sorts of people Mr. Ford would dismiss as elites may have just lost their ability to feel smug when casting their eyes south of the border.
Voters will have a lot on their shoulders, in three months' time.