Doug Ford’s majority-government victory in Ontario’s election, Thursday, cements the arrival of populism in a province that once was governed by common sense.
For the 14 million people living in Canada’s most populous province, the question now is whether and when pragmatic government will return, and how the province is to be governed in its absence.
The much-quoted distillation of Mr. Ford’s governing philosophy deserves repeating. “I govern through the people,” he said in May. “I don’t govern through government.”
What does that mean in practice? A raft of promised tax cuts, paid for by debt and by cuts to programs and services − he calls them “efficiencies” − which will almost certainly lead to labour strife in the public sector. Bellicose us-against-them rhetoric from the right, matched by furious resistance from the left. Cheap beer available in corner stores.
This is not how Ontario used to be governed.
To understand Ontario’s political culture, you must understand its geography, which mirrors the rest of Canada. There’s a cold, remote, sparsely populated north that lives off mining and lumber, prosperous cities in the south powered by financial services and high-tech industries, embattled manufacturing towns in the southwest and a broad swath of rich agricultural land stretching from Windsor to Cornwall. There’s even a commercial fishery on the Great Lakes.
The soil of Southern Ontario is so rich that the first settlers, arriving in the 1790s, prospered, and that prosperity fostered villages and towns and then cities, with mills and factories and office towers that guaranteed prosperity for most.
Although there have been occasional populist disruptions, both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments generally embraced “the tradition of pragmatism,” observes Anna Esselment, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, “and the history of bringing together diverse interests, classes, ethnicities, languages, geography and so on for the aim of growing and maintaining Ontario as an economic engine of the country.”
But Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne forgot that most voters work in the private, not public, sector. They live in suburbs and they drive to work in cars. Many of them have diplomas rather than degrees. If you disrespect these voters − if you tax them and lecture them and make them feel they are being looked down upon − they wreak their revenge. They made Rob Ford mayor of Toronto. Now they’ve made his brother premier.
That said, many people who voted for Doug Ford would rather have voted for a more mainstream conservative, such as former-and-now-returning MPP Christine Elliot. Many voters drifted to the Conservatives as the best of three bad choices, rather than from any enthusiasm for Mr. Ford.
Nonetheless, they chose him, and their choice will have consequences. The incoming premier’s bellicose rhetoric seeks to divide. He castigates affluent, well-educated voters in downtown enclaves. “They stick their nose up at you when they drink their champagne and have their little pinkie up in the air,” he told Ford Nation.
Indigenous Ontarians shouldn’t expect to hear Mr. Ford acknowledging the ancestral territory on which he stands. LGBTQ Ontarians shouldn’t expect to see their premier marching in Pride parades.
Don’t expect regular press conferences, either. Mr. Ford dislikes the media, accusing them of colluding with pollsters during the campaign to inflate support for the NDP. “The media, the pollsters, they don’t want us to win,” he told supporters in May. “So they’re making up numbers to write stories about NDP momentum.” That was so Donald Trump.
Unlike the American president, Mr. Ford isn’t nativist. He dominated the suburban ridings surrounding downtown Toronto, all of which which have large numbers of immigrant voters. The fear, though, is that his victory will be interpreted by far-right activists as tacit permission to up the anti-immigrant rhetoric, online and in demonstrations. Will that fear be realized? We’ll see.
Those downtown elites and public-sector workers will react to all this with fury, fuelling extreme language and actions, on both sides. This is how civil society erodes.
While emphasizing that the polarized choices in this election resulted as much from accident as design, Myer Siemiatycki, who teaches politics at Ryerson University, believes something more tectonic is also at work. “A heck of a lot of people feel that they are outsiders in the project of governing this province,” he believes. “Their perception is that government isn’t working for them.”
They don’t understand why their hydro bills go up and up. They don’t understand why they can’t afford to buy a house, why their commute is so awful, why so many of the things they deserve, considering how hard they work, they can’t afford. “People feel they are off the radar screen of government, that government cares about and serves other people and not them,” he says.
This could account for the visceral anger against the Wynne government, whose record, however blotched, surely did not warrant the punishment of being reduced to a tiny clutch of seats in the Ontario legislature.
Doug Ford responded to that anger by promising to increase disposable income through tax cuts. Ms. Horwath responded by promising increased government support. Tax cuts won.
Will Ontario ever return to the sensible, if rather bland, pragmatism that guided so many decades of growth? A proximate answer, Prof. Siemiatycki believes, lies in combining conservative pocketbook issues with progressive government intervention, in the common-sense tradition of Ontario politics.
But Prof. Esselment worries that a return to pragmatic government may be slowed by the current climate of rage-fuelled rants on Facebook and Twitter, and populist rhetoric of both the left and right. “Citizens may just tune out all news and formal participation in politics will sink to abysmal levels,” she fears. “That’s a very real problem.”
A lasting answer may lie in an old-fashioned return to civics, retooled for our times: instilling in each other, and especially in our young, the importance of respecting and accommodating diverse points of view.
The first law of political discourse must always be that people of good will can disagree on questions of public policy. The alternative leads to Doug Ford.