The most controversial event thus far in the life of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government was not hiring or firing somebody, or a program the Progressive Conservatives cancelled.
No. What truly shocked was Moody’s Investors Service’s decision last week to downgrade the provincial credit rating. That would never have happened under Mike Harris’s PCs. But then, Doug Ford is not Mike Harris. To understand Mr. Ford’s administration, you need to understand why that is.
Dec. 29 will mark the Ford government’s six-month anniversary. In December, 1995, six months into the Harris government, the Common Sense Revolution was in full flight, and much of the province in revolt.
As with Mr. Ford, the Harris Conservatives came to power after a long period of progressive governments that had left the province heavily taxed and deeply in debt. Voters wanted change. The Common Sense Revolution election platform promised to both cut taxes and balance the budget.
To achieve those goals, the Conservatives slashed spending in every direction, including a 22-per-cent cut to social-assistance benefits. Huge protests clogged the grounds of Queen’s Park, while the opposition filibustered in the legislature. Later, there were province-wide strikes by teachers and public servants. But the Conservatives never wavered and voters rewarded them with another majority government in 1999.
Things are so different under Mr. Ford that it’s hard to believe he leads the same political party. Killing the cap-and-trade carbon pricing without also cutting spending led to the credit downgrade. Whatever spending has been cut, such as to midwifery training or an Indigenous arts program, seems designed more to spite opponents than help balance the books.
Granted, Mr. Ford had little time to prepare, winning the leadership less than two months before the provincial election. The Premier and most of his senior advisers also lack experience governing at the provincial level, which might account for the time wasted trying to appoint a friend of Mr. Ford’s to lead the Ontario Provincial Police.
But supporters of Mr. Ford, two government officials who spoke on background so that they could express themselves more freely, say there are also fundamental differences between his priorities and those of Mr. Harris.
For one thing, they say, the Harris Tories came to power at a time when baby boomers were taking the reins of government. The boomers had been traumatized by two decades of high interest rates, high inflation, high taxes and one recession after another. In response, governments everywhere – including the Liberals in Ottawa and provincial governments of all stripes – were cutting spending and balancing their budgets.
Today’s millennials, in contrast, don’t fear deficits the way their parents do, making it harder for governments to justify spending cuts.
Even more important, they say, the Common Sense Revolution was ideological; Ford Nation is cultural. This populist Premier focuses on the concerns of people who believe previous governments pandered to elites while ignoring or condescending to them. For the Little Guy.
So rewriting the provincial sex-ed curriculum or firing the chief executive of Hydro One, which most conservatives would consider peripheral concerns, are core concerns for this government. And cancelling the provincial carbon price while fighting the federal one becomes, not just an issue, but a crusade.
Voters in 1995, Mr. Ford’s supporters say, rejected the tax-and-spend ideology of Bob Rae’s New Democrats. But voters in 2018 weren’t necessarily rejecting Kathleen Wynne’s agenda; they were rejecting her. Or to be more precise, they rejected the hauteur, cronyism and corruption of the Liberals and their hangers-on. Again: not ideology, but culture.
“Criticism is to be expected when you deliver change,” Simon Jefferies, a spokesman for the Premier, said in a e-mail statement to The Globe and Mail. “A lot of insiders had it good under the Liberals, and even today there are elites who are threatened by what a true Government for the People stands for.” But "nothing can and will distract our government” from delivering on its commitment to lower taxes and energy costs, improve health care and promote business growth, he said.
If the government at Queen’s Park is truly populist, then Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s spring budget may not be as conservative as some would like. The brutal rigour of the Common Sense Revolution may not be to Mr. Ford’s taste.
Mr. Harris liked the little guy, too. His advisers jeered at what they called “the white wine set.” But they were authentic, small-government, balanced-books conservatives. Mr. Ford? Not so much.
The two men are as different as night and day.