Doug Ford was 30 when Mike Harris became Ontario’s premier in June, 1995. It appears the young man took notes.
Mr. Harris moved so fast, on so many fronts, that opponents simply couldn’t keep up. Photo radar: gone. Employment equity rules: gone. The new Eglinton West subway line: cancelled. Welfare rates: slashed by more than 20 per cent. All within the first month of taking office.
And the Harris Tories never let up. Not for one minute. Not for four years. They took on provincial public servants in a province-wide strike, and beat them. They took on the teachers in a province-wide strike, and beat them.
They slashed spending and cut taxes. They closed and amalgamated hospitals. They raised university tuition. They amalgamated school boards, even as they stripped them of their power over taxation and curriculum. They forced amalgamation on Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and other municipalities despite furious local opposition. They downloaded responsibilities to local governments that local governments didn’t want.
On and on and on it went: First came the announcement, then the rage that greeted the announcement – the demonstrations, the strikes, the editorials. But the government didn’t bend and another bill became law. And then came the next announcement.
In 1999, the Harris Conservatives won another big majority government. Why? Because they knew that the key to success for conservatives in Ontario lay in keeping both rural and suburban voters happy. And one great way to keep them both happy was to demonize progressive voters living in the downtowns.
Doug Ford is doing exactly the same thing, and although it’s early days yet, odds are good he will be equally successful.
The Ford government is moving with incredible speed on multiple fronts, just as the Harris government did. In its first month, this government has cancelled energy contracts, turfed Hydro One’s CEO and board, scrapped the cap-and-trade carbon tax, scotched the sex-ed curriculum.
And this week, we learned the government is privatizing the sale of cannabis and slashing the number of Toronto city councillors, even though the municipal elections and the on-sale date for legal marijuana are less than three months away.
As a reporter, Adam Vaughan covered the Harris government. He then became a downtown Toronto councillor, and today is a Liberal MP representing Spadina-Fort York.
“Ford’s move on Toronto is vindictive destruction, arrogant and thoughtless,” Mr. Vaughan tweeted when news of changes to city council broke. “It’s absolutely not about good governance. We must fight it.” These words are music to Doug Ford’s ears.
Privatizing marijuana sales will also appeal to Ford Nation, both because it emphasizes private enterprise over government bureaucracy, and because there will be more stores selling marijuana. Question: If marijuana is sold by the private sector, then why is alcohol in Ontario still controlled by a public monopoly? Does Mr. Ford have plans for the LCBO?
If the Ford government truly intends to imitate the Harris government, then Ontario residents should brace themselves. The more opposition the Conservatives face from school teachers, public servants, environmentalists, social activists and columnists, the more determined the Conservatives will become, the farther they will go, and the happier their partisans will be.
The Harris government also took on the federal Liberals in Ottawa, demanding increased funding for health care with no strings attached, and battling over compensation for people who contracted hepatitis C through the blood supply.
The Ford government has already sent the Trudeau government a $200-million bill for the costs of accommodating refugee claimants, and vows to fight the carbon tax Ottawa will impose on Ontario now that cap-and-trade is no more.
How will this play out over the next four years? As long as middle-class suburban commuters in Oakville and Oshawa and Vaughan and Scarborough believe the Conservatives are governing in their interest, Doug Ford will remain popular.
Eventually, the Harris Tories lost energy and focus. When that happened, suburban voters abandoned their rural cousins and made common cause with downtown voters, leading to 15 years of Liberal government at Queen’s Park. If Mr. Ford missteps, those suburban voters will turn on him too.
But for now, if you live in Ontario, hang onto your hat.