The political centre is collapsing in Ontario, polarizing between social democrats and populist conservatives. We thought it couldn’t happen here. It’s happening here. And it poses a grave threat to the Liberal Party, both provincially and federally.
After acknowledging Saturday morning that she couldn’t win the June 7 provincial election, Kathleen Wynne urged voters to elect enough Liberals to give her party the balance of power in a minority government.
Ms. Wynne’s real goal may be to concentrate all available resources on winning the eight seats needed to preserve party status in the Ontario legislature. Without party status, the Liberals would lose research funding and the right to ask questions in Question Period.
We don’t know yet whether Andrea Horwath’s NDP or Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives will form a government after the election. But both offer radical change.
The NDP are promising universal dental care and pharmacare, a massive expansion of socialized medicine, child care at $12 a day, and free university and college tuition for students in need. All to be paid for by higher income and corporate taxes, and by taking on debt.
In Mr. Ford, Ms. Horwath doesn’t confront an ideologically polar opposite similar to past PC premier Mike Harris or Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. Instead, she faces an economic populist, the first in modern times to lead a central Canadian political party.
The Progressive Conservative platform focuses on lowering the price of a tank of gas, introducing beer and wine into corner stores, lowering income and corporate taxes as well as hydro bills, increasing spending on health care, improving commuter rail service and creating a tax credit for child care. All to be paid for by unspecified cuts to existing programs and by taking on debt.
But mostly, the focus for PC voters is Mr. Ford himself: blustery, belligerent, promising to clean up the mess – “You know me. I’m for the little guy.” Ms. Horwath, in contrast, is warmer. She talks about lifting up the single mother trying to earn a living wage while raising her children.
No party has plans to balance the provincial budget, align new spending with available resources, seek practical, incremental change. For both parties, the centre is the enemy.
Such a polarization between well-to-the-left and populist right challenges the electoral base of the federal Liberals. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be able to work with an NDP government, the PC’s plans to eliminate the carbon tax flies in the face of a core federal commitment to fight climate change.
Maybe a year and a half of Doug Ford would make Mr. Trudeau look good to Ontario voters. Or maybe things would become so toxic that polarization infects federal politics as well.
Is the social democratic/populist conservative schism in Ontario permanent? That’s impossible to say. Had the PCs chosen a more conventional conservative as leader, had Ms. Wynne stepped aside when there was still a chance for the Liberals to renew the party, we might not be talking about schisms.
But maybe this was coming sooner or later. The knowledge economy centred in the Toronto-to-Waterloo corridor creates many new jobs, but dispossesses people with less education and more hands-on skills. Artificial intelligence will widen the gulf between winners and losers.
In such an environment, why wouldn’t the losers lash out? In such a society, where is the appeal in moderation of any kind?
Central Canadian populism differs from its American or European counterpart in one important respect: It doesn’t play to racial resentments. Mr. Ford courts immigrant voters, appealing to the social conservatism of people from developing countries with his promise to tone down the sex-ed curriculum.
Here’s the big question: Would a Ford government enable the haters, even though he espouses no such hatred himself? Would the alt-right interpret a Premier Ford as carte blanche to demand an end to immigration, to target visible minorities, to proclaim that Ontario is Christian and white?
We’ll find out the answer if Mr. Ford wins. Ms. Horwath is determined to stop him. All we know for sure is that, at least in Ontario, at least for now, the centre no longer holds.