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Ontario Premier Doug Ford boards his bus as he leaves a press conference at the HVAC-R training facility in Brampton, Ont., on May 25.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

In the 2020 U.S. election, with lightning-rod president Donald Trump running for a (terrifying or inspiring, depending on your politics) second term, Republicans and Democrats alike had no trouble motivating voters. As a result, Mr. Trump collected more than 74 million votes; 11 million more than he’d received in 2016, and the most ever by a U.S. presidential candidate. But Joe Biden did even better, getting 81 million votes – 15.5 million more than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

An estimated 66 per cent of eligible Americans voted – a full seven percentage points higher than in 2016. It was the highest voter turnout in modern American history.

Last week’s Ontario provincial election was the polar opposite.

Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative Party were returned to office with a large majority, despite receiving 400,000 fewer votes than in 2018. The New Democratic Party did even worse, getting 800,000 fewer votes than in 2018, or barely more than half as many as the previous election. As for the Liberals, after their worst-ever showing in 2018, they increased their vote share – but their number of ballots still dropped.

Ontario has three-quarters of a million more people than in 2018, yet 1.1 million fewer voted. Barely more than 43 per cent of the population bothered – 13 percentage points less than four years earlier. It was the lowest voter turnout in modern Ontario history, by far.

To quote former Ontario PC premier Bill Davis: “Bland works.” It sure did for Mr. Ford.

As we wrote last week, Mr. Ford won re-election by ceasing to be the lightning-rod candidate elected in 2018 (in an anybody-but-the-Liberals cakewalk), or the Premier of his first year in power. That model of Ford excited a base of supporters, but he fostered a large and growing groundswell of opposition on the centre and left. He looked to be on a one-way trip to a one-and-done term of office.

Instead, Mr. Ford’s government went through a two-year pandemic makeover. It transformed him from Scary Ford to Bland Ford. He went from the right lane, with one wheel in the soft shoulder, to the middle of the road. That turned some erstwhile opponents into supporters, but most were rendered happy enough with the status quo that they couldn’t be bothered to get off the couch.

And in this metamorphosis, Mr. Ford and his PC government were assisted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Its arrival rewrote the rules of fiscal policy.

The Doug Ford of 2018 could never have won an election in 2022. But he changed

Doug Ford is re-elected: Did he raise his game or did we all just lower our standards?

Were the PCs the party of less or more government? Yes. Were they for tens of billions of dollars for new, toll-free highways, and all manner of taxpayer subsidies for drivers, or for tens of billions of dollars to build new public transit? Yes. Were they for tax cuts, or more spending? Yes. Yes to all of the above.

To be sure, Mr. Ford’s pandemic-era personality change has a lot to do with his government’s re-election. His willingness to reach across the aisle and collaborate with the federal Liberals for their mutual benefit is also part of the story.

But Mr. Ford had one other thing going for him: The past two years have been a fiscal liminal moment. All sorts of rules, including basic budget arithmetic, were suspended. To govern is normally to choose, but the PC government has spent the past two years not really having to make fiscal choices. Not having to worry about making revenues and expenditures roughly match has allowed it to say “yes” to everyone and “no” to almost nobody.

But this moment is – was – temporary. Governments across the country did what had to be done, running deficits to keep Canadians afloat and the economy treading water during the worst of the pandemic.

That is now ancient history. With recession and mass unemployment giving way to labour shortages and an economy running too hot, the era of write-cheques-and-ask-questions-later is over.

Which means a Ford government that found re-election to be a cinch, thanks to always saying yes, is going to find governing, and in particular budgeting, to be a lot more challenging.

Buried in its most recent budget, introduced before the election but not yet passed, are clues to the tough choices ahead.

More on that, later this week.

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