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Opinion Governing norms vs. populist pull will define Ford’s time in office

John Duffy is a founding principal at StrategyCorp, and has served on many Liberal campaigns.

In 1983, two Ontario PC strategists wrote a memorandum entitled Donald Duck for Leader. In it, they laid out a plan to succeed Bill Davis, the centrist premier par excellence of the era, with a right-wing, anti-elite, populist figure. The Disney character’s name was a code for Frank Miller, who became the province’s premier, briefly, before losing power to the Liberals and NDP in the watershed 1985 election.

Donald Duck for Leader signalled the birth of the modern era in Ontario politics. In this era, the governing tradition, usually Liberal or NDP, has ruled 31 of the past 40 years, generally along the rails laid down by Mr. Davis and his immediate predecessors. Urban/Toronto-based coalitions have collaborated more or less closely with the federal government, legislated post-Charter policies and invested fairly freely in social entitlements. The opposition tradition, which is rooted in rural Ontario, has taken office only when it has gathered enough voters from the suburbs and smaller cities to wrestle power from the usual government, as it did in the PC leadership victory of Mr. Miller, and in Mike Harris’s two big wins in the 1990s. Ontario’s opposition has been more skeptical of Big Ottawa, balky about Charter-driven social reforms, and hostile to taxation. Opposition to environmental imperatives has also come to characterize this tradition.

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In power, Ontario’s opposition governments have been fascinating, evolving creatures. Indeed, they have been largely defined by the tensions between their populist, outsider roots and the challenges of leadership in a system – and to some degree an electorate – that is deeply intertwined with the governing tradition. This tension broke Mr. Miller’s premiership, and defined the evolution of Mr. Harris’s government. Once again, the pull between Ontario’s governing norms and the outsider impulses of the populist opposition will largely define Doug Ford’s time in office.

This tension will play out across the entire political and policy field of the government. Start with the challenge of knitting together a cabinet and caucus with an unusually wide range of viewpoints, from Mitch McConnell-Paul Ryan movement conservatives to Trumpian populists and political neophyte players in suburban ethnocultural communities. Moreover, rarely has an incoming government arrived so fresh from a bruising leadership race. Some ministers will play the renegade-in-power; others will seek to function as technocrats, smoothly operating the machinery built around the governing tradition. The notoriously fractious PC party will need to be managed adroitly, now that the unifying task of gaining power has receded for the time being.

The clash of traditions will also shape the government’s policy choices. It’s been decades since a government in a major Canadian jurisdiction has come to office with a so loosely defined policy offering. The apparent contradictions within Mr. Ford’s Plan for the People will inevitably require reconciliation of some of its key commitments through paths that are unclear at best.

Go with an outsider’s plan to slash taxes and tighten the finances? Or roll with the inexorable demands of the entrenched health system in a period of demographic reckoning and accelerating, but costly technology? Blow up the entire provincial approach to climate change and replace it with … nothing? Or find a way to reconcile the critique of Liberal policies with accepting a broad business-government consensus on the urgency of addressing climate change? Insider or outrider? Opposition tradition or governmental?

Solving these problems is hard enough to begin with, and will get harder with a rambunctious party and an ill-defined set of voter-sanctioned platform guardrails. What will make the Ford government entirely arresting to observe will be the notorious unpredictability of the premier-designate himself. Mr. Ford sails into office with a large majority, but a wide wake of unresolved legal and ethical situations trailing him. The management of these problems will, at a minimum, take up a fair amount of his time. At the maximum, they could mix with the tensions of an opposition-tradition party in power and overwhelm its management – with unpredictable consequences.

Former Globe and Mail journalist Jeffrey Simpson’s 1981 classic, Discipline of Power, chronicled how an outsider party gained and lost control of Ottawa through failing to come to grips with the realities of governing. Mr. Ford’s first-day roll-out of a strong transition team and the early (if regrettable) cancellation of the province’s sex-education curriculum, are likely intended as signals that power will be exercised in a crisp, disciplined fashion. Score one for the forces of order. But politics is famously a long game, and day one a mandate does not make.

Time will tell whether order, governing and the discipline of power can weld the Ford election triumph into a secure government with lasting results. The alternative could be something much more wrenching and unpredictable.

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