The campaign is over, the votes have been counted, and the Ontario election has yielded a clear winner: none of the above. It wasn’t even close.
More people chose not to vote in this election than voted for all of the parties combined. At 43 per cent, turnout was not only the lowest, by far, in Ontario’s history; it was very nearly the lowest for any election ever, anywhere in the country: In the past hundred years, it is second only to Alberta’s 2008 disgrace.
That, more than the widely expected victory of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives over the Liberals and the NDP, is the real story of this election. The three parties may have been nominally competing with each other, but together they conspired to produce what was surely the most tedious, uninvolving election since Canada began.
At least in Mr. Ford’s case it was deliberate. The Tory Leader ran without a platform, made few public appearances and avoided the media for most of the campaign, on the theory that the fewer Ontarians guessed there was an election on, the better his chances. It worked, I guess: With 41 per cent of the vote, Mr. Ford now governs with the support of just one in six eligible voters.
But what was the opposition leaders’ excuse? Between them, the NDP’s Andrea Horwath and the Liberals’ Steven Del Duca failed to raise any issue of salience to the voters or offer any compelling policy proposal; certainly neither of them stirred the voters’ blood on the basis of their inspiring leadership.
Instead, the race devolved into a simple contest between the status quo and change. Making the case for the status quo was Mr. Ford. And making the case for change was … nobody. The opposition leaders appear to have imagined the electorate was so primed to eject Mr. Ford that the only remaining issue was to decide which of them should be premier.
Accordingly, the two spent more of the election sniping at each other than Mr. Ford. The message this would have sent many voters was that Mr. Ford could not be as bad as all that – not enough, at any rate, to discard their ordinary partisan allegiances in favour of a common front. And so the vote split almost perfectly evenly between them.
Mr. Ford made his own contribution to this. Had the blustering chaos agent of his first years in power showed up in this election, he might well have been sufficiently frightening on his own to stampede opposition voters into one corral or another. But Mr. Ford had long since had that beaten out of him – a combination of some terrible polls and the sobering reality of the pandemic.
It would be too much to say that Mr. Ford won the election on the basis of his handling of the pandemic, which was uncertain at best. But he did not lose on it. Voters appear to have forgiven him his stumbles on a massive, intractable issue that confounded most governments around the world. If he sometimes looked out of his depth, Mr. Ford showed an empathetic, caring side of himself that had not previously been suspected.
Most importantly, he placed himself squarely on the side of mainstream science. The vaccine refuseniks and COVID deniers in his caucus, of the kind that caused Alberta Premier Jason Kenney such torment, were abruptly sidelined. Policy may have been inconsistent, even erratic at times – notably the short-lived plan to close playgrounds and institute random police street checks – but over all, Ontario’s anti-COVID regime was one of the strictest on the continent.
Perhaps it was only that expectations of him were so minimal before the event – perhaps it was less a matter of him rising to the occasion than everyone else lowering themselves to his level – but Mr. Ford emerged from the crisis not as the electoral liability he had been before, but as something of an asset: if not the object of any great rush of enthusiasm, then at least grudging acceptance. “Get It Done” may have been the slogan he ran on, but the slogan he was elected on was “Doug Ford: Could Be Worse.”
Alas, Mr. Ford did not just ditch populism on his way to re-election but also any lingering attachment to conservatism. Not that he showed much interest in the concept to begin with. He ran the first time, even as he denounced Kathleen Wynne’s monster deficits, on a pledge that no cuts in spending were needed (just unspecified “efficiencies”), tried to make some anyway, ran into opposition and gave up. His government now spends 6 per cent more, per capita, after inflation, than Ms. Wynne’s did on average.
Does this make his government more moderate, more progressive, than others of the same party label? No, it just makes it more random. It’s hard to ascribe any governing philosophy to it, other than Fordism, mixing the leader’s impulses and hunches with his staff’s relentless polling. Whether or not this explains the election result can be debated, but what is certain is that it makes it less interesting.
The government of Ontario over which Doug Ford presides is more or less indistinguishable from the government that preceded it: It spends and taxes just as much or more, does (or attempts to do) just as many things, with about as much success or failure. Neither does Mr. Ford have any apparent plans to change that.
But, to adapt a military saying, history gets a vote. The pandemic was something of an accidental blessing for Mr. Ford and his government: It gave it a purpose it had lacked before, or at least obscured its absence. In more normal times it will presumably be judged by less forgiving standards. As the province’s economy slows, its fiscal woes mount, its health care system decays and its schools decline, Mr. Ford will be challenged to offer more concrete proposals than “get it done.”
But for now, presiding over 5.3-per-cent unemployment and facing a pair of opposition leaders who would put Sominex to sleep, Mr. Ford was judged the least bad option, at least by the two in five voters who bothered to turn up. A win’s a win, I suppose. But he should be under no illusions about how thin a mandate this is.
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