David Moscrop is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions And How We Can Make Better Ones.
Politics often seems to be a choreographed affair: the speeches, the platitudes, the platforms, the promises. And then after the heat of election season, the debate, the compromise, the waiting. To the frustration of some observers, politicians appear gutless or oblivious to solutions, captured by other interests, or quite simply incompetent. Once enough anger builds up, citizens clamour for a release valve, or a wrecking ball. From time to time, they get just that.
So it was last year that Doug Ford’s Ontario Progressive Conservatives came to power after a series of party scandals and a disorganized leadership campaign, but at a time when a cranky electorate was clearly tired of 15 years of Liberal government. The PCs ran its insurgent campaign on vague promises to deliver outcomes “for the people,” heavy on base emotional appeal and light on substance. They won handily.
But year one has seen a chaotic, destructive and unpopular run of policy lurch, and a governing style that has been haphazard, unprofessional and nasty – though it’s not really clear what else Ontarians expected from Mr. Ford.
The Tories have gutted environmental legislation at a time when concern for climate change is growing. They have taken a hacksaw to the budget in their zeal to balance Ontario’s books. They have applied an ideological one-size-fits-all approach to legislating, as if winning a majority in the legislature was equivalent to receiving a mandate from heaven. But the “folks” for whom the Blue side claimed to govern pushed back, mobilizing on sensitive files such as autism funding, French language services and funding for municipalities.
So if much of Mr. Ford’s first year was spent on a conservative offensive, it was also marked by strategic retreats. It appears that a commitment to the liberalization of alcohol prices and controls can only go so far, in the face of difficult, potentially unpopular decisions that voters expect to be handled soberly.
Perhaps the Premier and his team have learned a fundamental lesson about politics: it’s supposed to be slow, careful and consultative, and that it appears choreographed for a reason.
A just democracy, after all, is an inclusive democracy. The democratic process is slow and conditioned by compromise insofar as the perspectives, priorities and concerns of a diverse population must be considered when crafting legislation and policy. Outcomes ought to be delivered “for the people” in a meaningful way, not simply to take aim at some cipher of elite interests or to indulge the tantrums of ideologues. This requires that leaders, especially so-called populists, take time and great care to engage with those they govern instead of asserting some vague, blank-cheque “mandate” that empowers them to dismantle things – especially before offering a plan to responsibly put them back together.
Mr. Ford is hardly alone in his belief that he earned the right to start fresh from the previous government’s much-assailed reign. After winning Alberta’s premiership by painting Rachel Notley’s NDP as actively detrimental to the province, UCP leader Jason Kenney has already gotten to work on slashing through her legacy at every turn during this “summer of repeal.” And the federal Liberal Party made just such a bogeyman of Stephen Harper, vowing once in office they would replace him with positive change – so much so that it failed to see how that might directly lead Justin Trudeau to some of the problems now before him. And with eight of 14 provincial, territorial and federal legislatures governed by majorities, this kind of lurch – institute policy, change government, repeal, rinse, repeat – is too common.
To Mr. Ford’s credit, he at least appears to have realized fairly early on that, even with his majority government replacing a previously unpopular administration, there are limits to what people will let you get away with. But that happened thanks to agitation by the very people he professed to champion: citizens and civil society. Now it’s up to the Tories to use their rather long remaining time in government to grow, knowing that governing in a pluralist democracy requires taking your time, listening, consulting citizens and civil society groups, and incorporating feedback in good faith.
As the province heads into year two of the Ford show, both the Tories and Ontarians at large have an interest in seeing a more judicious, consultative and gentle approach to governing. With all those paeans to their name, “the people” ought to keep up their pressure on the Progressive Conservatives, reminding them that sometimes we do “politics as usual” for a reason. The frenetic politics of wrecking-ball governance, after all, is neither progressive nor conservative – it’s simply destructive.