Doug Ford will try to assemble a conservative coalition first forged more than 20 years ago by Mike Harris. He will be opposed by the same urban progressive voters who despised Mr. Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.
Both sides will fight for the support of the immigrant voters in suburban ridings inside and surrounding Toronto, which is why Mr. Ford’s populism is utterly dissimilar to the populism of Donald Trump.
But first, a smidgen of history: The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario was broke and dispirited when it voted for a new leader in May, 1990. The Big Blue Machine, which had governed Ontario for 42 years, had been reduced to a third-place rump in the Ontario legislature, with no realistic hope of winning.
The party establishment rallied behind Dianne Cunningham, a centrist MPP from London, while a cabal of young, right-wing zealots championed Mike Harris from North Bay. Using the then-new system of direct voting by members, the party chose Mr. Harris.
Five years later, the Tories were still in third place and destined to perpetual opposition in the minds of most pundits and professors. But Mr. Harris’s young advisers – Tom Long, Leslie Noble, David Lindsay, Deb Hutton, Alister Campbell, Tony Clement and a few others – believed voters were ready for a change after 10 years of Liberal and NDP rule. They crafted the Common Sense Revolution, which called for a balanced budget, major income-tax cuts and equally major cuts to spending, especially on welfare and other social programs.
Voters embraced the CSR, handing the Harris Tories two consecutive majority governments. Those majorities were based on a coalition of rural and small-town voters and voters in the suburban cities outside Toronto that had just been given a new area code: 905. More than a decade later, those same voters would rally to Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives.
But Justin Trudeau won the 905 back for the Liberals federally, just as Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne captured them provincially. Which brings us to last weekend’s Ontario PC leadership vote.
Mr. Ford did well among Tory voters in the 905. On the final ballot, he defeated Christine Elliott – who, like Diane Cunningham before her, was the choice of the party establishment – by two-to-one margins in parts of Mississauga, with its heavily immigrant population. He also racked up big pluralities in places like Vaughan and Richmond Hill, and in many of the suburban ridings of Toronto itself – Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough – that also contain large numbers of immigrants.
So it’s wrong to compare Fordism to Trumpism. The American President’s coalition is rooted in racial resentment toward illegal Latino immigrants allegedly stealing jobs, toward foreign workers competing with American workers, toward Muslims accused of being potential terrorists. Trump populism is, at its heart, based on fear of the other.
Ford populism shares with its Mike Harris predecessor a dislike for big government, red-tape regulation, high taxes and waste. It especially derides the political, cultural, academic and journalistic elites in downtown Toronto.
But there is no anti-immigrant tinge to that populism—quite the opposite. If Mr. Ford succeeds it will be because, like Mike Harris and Stephen Harper before him, he wins over economically and socially conservative immigrant voters in suburban ridings.
However, there are also big differences between Mr. Ford and Mr. Harris. For one, the Harris government largely steered clear of social conservatism, preferring to focus its efforts on tax cuts and spending cuts.
Mr. Ford, however, wants to reopen the province’s sex-ed curriculum and has murmured sympathetically to anti-abortion activists.
Then there is the environment. The Harris Conservatives expanded protected lands and began shutting down coal-fired power stations. Mr. Ford has vowed to scrap the provincial carbon tax that aims to combat global warming.
Most important, everyone knew what Mike Harris stood for – it was all there in the CSR – but no one knows how Mr. Ford would govern Ontario: whether and how he would balance the budget, whether and how he would cut taxes, where he would reduce spending.
He has time, though not much time, to tell us. But none of it will matter to progressive voters in places like downtown Toronto. They despised Mike Harris, they loathed Stephen Harper and they are already apoplectic about Mr. Ford.
In that respect, at least, this could be fun to watch.