Skip to main content

Step right up, folks. The Doug Ford sideshow is just about to present its next act.

Normally, Ontarians are treated to spectacular displays of acrobatics: gravity-defying flip-flops on just about every low-polling decision the Progressive Conservative government fleetingly stands behind. But if you’re tired of watching backflips – on the Greenbelt, on dissolving Peel Region, on new licence plates, on cancelling plans for a French-language university, on autism funding – Mr. Ford has something new for you: a feel-good diversionary spectacle in the form of new legislation that will require future governments to hold a referendum before introducing any new provincial carbon-pricing programs.

Ta-da! I’ll pause here for applause …

This bit will be part of Mr. Ford’s “Get It Done Act” (that is not a joke; it’s the actual name of the legislation) to be unveiled next week. “I’ve always said, the carbon tax is the worst tax,” Mr. Ford said in a news release. “It increases the cost of everything. We need to protect Ontario workers and families from the high cost of a carbon tax and we urge the federal government to do the same.” Mr. Ford took the opportunity to peg Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie as exactly the type of provincial leader against whom his legislation would protect. “If you look up when she was an MP in Ottawa, she was the queen of the carbon tax,” Mr. Ford said at a press conference. “She was up there cheering the carbon tax. It makes things more unaffordable for people.”

This very serious legislation is quintessential Doug Ford: populist (a plurality of Ontarians believe taxing carbon is bad policy, according to recent Abacus polling), extraneous (Ontarians pay a federal carbon tax because Mr. Ford scrapped the province’s cap-and-trade system in 2018), and easily reversed. It has all the folksy appeal of, say, a referendum on whether airlines should serve better in-flight meals, or whether your mother-in-law should move into your spare bedroom – and it has roughly as much of a chance of being enforced. Indeed, a future government could simply scrap the legislation, and your wife will be right out the door to get carpet samples to try out in the bedroom.

Past provincial leaders have recognized the energizing, if impotent, effect of promising policy-related referenda. As part of his “Common Sense Revolution,” Ontario premier Mike Harris introduced the Taxpayer Protection and Balanced Budget Act in 1999, which required future governments to hold a referendum before raising or introducing new taxes. Alberta premier Jason Kenney delivered on a campaign pledge to put the question of scrapping equalization from the Constitution to a referendum. These were noble efforts to galvanize supporters, but keen observers of history will note that Ontario has raised a tax or two without the express permission of taxpayers over the past 25 years. And to the chagrin of the roughly 62 per cent of Albertans who voted in the referendum, Canada’s Constitution remains unchanged.

It’s clear that for Mr. Ford, creating legislation that will actually be enforced isn’t the goal here. Rather, this is about returning to an old faithful: a classic, feel-good gimmick, just like his 2018 buck-a-beer pledge and the 2019 anti-carbon-tax stickers that his government ordered be displayed at every gas-station pump (a directive that was deemed unconstitutional by an Ontario Superior Court judge).

Indeed, this referendum policy is about trying to reclaim some of his old conservative bona fides after years of building a reputation as a weak-kneed big spender. So, too, is his just-announced plan to ban tolls on provincial highways other than the 407 (though there are no actual plans to introduce new tolls on provincial highways other than the 407), his vow to automate licence-plate renewal (after reports that his government’s 2022 elimination of plate stickers has led to a surge in expired plates) and his decision to once again scrap a planned, indexed-to-inflation hike to the beer tax and LCBO markup rates (everyone needs a go-to move, after all).

By waving his arms, tossing his cape and shouting “Carbon Tax Referendum!”, Mr. Ford also creates a useful diversion from some of the more substantive issues the government would prefer Ontarians ignore. They include its curious sole-source contract with Staples to house some ServiceOntario outlets (the government will surely provide the business case for the deal just as soon as buck-a-beer is back in stock) and its sudden acquiescence on Bill 124, the wage-cap legislation for public-sector workers that the government vehemently defended for years, but will now abandon after a ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal.

So for Mr. Ford, this is simply a continuation of his favourite type of sideshow: one where he makes something out of nothing, and the whole thing – poof! – disappears when anyone swoops in for a closer look. Meanwhile, Staples executives sneak offstage amid the smoke. Please clap.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe