COMMENTARY: Doug Ford now needs to convert a populist message into good governance
The Ontario election is over, and the winner is … populism.
Its anti-establishment broom swept the Progressive Conservatives to victory with 76 seats, and saw the NDP form the official opposition with 40. It blew the Liberals out the door with just seven – while the Green Party gained its first seat in provincial history. It was a sea change years in the making, and one which should shape politics for all parties for years to come.
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In retrospect, Ontario’s populist wave started even before the death spiral of erstwhile PC leader Patrick Brown. It actually may have started with Brown himself, when he won the leadership back in 2015 in defiance of the political establishment of the time.
Favoured rival Christine Elliott had received the endorsement of most of the party caucus, former premier Bill Davis, and — ironically, considering what was to come — former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and future party leader Doug Ford.
Brown reached out to groups who felt ignored by the party brass, including social conservatives and new Canadians. Under his leadership, the PCs’ first platform was called the “People’s Guarantee,” and while it differed in many respects from the vision presented under Ford, it gave a nod to the populist winds that were blowing into Ontario: lower hydro bills, lower taxes, less government waste.
The subsequent election of Ford as leader cemented the populist theme even further. In a down-to-the-wire contest, Elliott lost once again, this time to Ford’s anti-establishment pitch.
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Ford carried this tone throughout the election, railing against not only the Liberal government, but the liberal media, and elites in general. In style, his campaign took a page from that of Donald Trump, emphasizing the leader over the party.
On election night, at party headquarters, the branding was all Ford: the campaign bus sat parked inside the lobby, Ford’s smiling visage towering 15-feet high; the slogan “For the People” graced the podium, nary a PC logo in sight; supporters sported t-shirts emblazoned with “Doug Ford.”
Even the traditional blue and white colour scheme was junked, in favour of red, white and blue.
At the same time, the NDP mined a populism of their own. Their “Change for the better” theme focused on disenchanted left-leaning voters, including social justice advocates and environmentalists.
They appealed to young people, with student-loan forgiveness, and women, with promises of health benefits and low-cost daycare. Their surge can be ascribed to the same base that Bernie Sanders galvanized in the Democrats’ race for the U.S. Presidential nomination in 2016: the “progressive” anti-establishment voter.
This appeal paid off most notably in Toronto, where they captured eight seats; their blue-collar base turned out in others, such as Oshawa, St. Catharines and Hamilton; and their northern vote solidified in several key ridings.
The Liberals found themselves wedged between two populist currents.
After 15 years in power, they could not play the anti-establishment card, and their attempt to steal the NDP’s mantle by raising the minimum wage, offering pharmacare for young people, and promising more spending on childcare ultimately failed to catch fire.
Coupled with an unpopular leader and hobbled by a litany of scandals, the party imploded and fell to its lowest seat count since 1951.
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For Ford, the challenge is now to govern without morphing into the establishment he derides, but also without caving in to the extremism populism can engender.
Already, Ford has taken the first step, assembling a transition team that combines close allies (advisors Dean French and Simone Daniels) with experienced politicians (former provincial and federal cabinet minister John Baird), party operatives (Baird’s former Baird chief of staff Chris Froggatt), and policy minds (hospital CEO and long-time Tory Reuben Devlin, lobbyist Mike Coates).
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His cabinet will also no doubt include stalwarts like Elliott and former finance critic Vic Fedeli, as well as newcomers Caroline Mulroney, now MPP for York-Simcoe, and former OLG chair Rod Phillips, now MPP for Ajax, none of whom could be tagged as “radical right” by Ford’s critics.
On the policy side, by not releasing a costed platform, a gambit that seemed crazy for a party that prides itself on fiscal prudence, Ford has actually given himself some fiscal wiggle room in the first two years.
Ironically, he will likely play the same card that former Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty did upon assuming office in 2003: blaming the previous government for leaving a worse financial situation than it let on.
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Ford’s challenge will be implanting his income and gas tax cuts without blowing an even bigger hole in the provincial budget, which will mean that the hunt for savings will need to start immediately and in earnest.
The key to Ford’s success will also be to avoid the chaos that engulfed his late brother’s administration in its final year at Toronto City Hall. While Ford’s family troubles did not dent his lead in the last week of the campaign, he cannot afford to let these issues take centre stage once in government.
The faith of Ford Nation may have helped propel the PCs to victory, but the party must remember that they are not all of Ontario. Not all voters will be as forgiving of personal problems, and could soon tire of them should they get in the way of good governance.
Finally, all parties need to remember that politics is not fashion; without a set of guiding principles, it is too easy to lose one’s way. What is “for the people” today may be rejected by them tomorrow. It can also lead down the rabbit hole of intolerance, an outcome Ford needs to avoid at all costs in as pluralist a province as Ontario.
If he can keep the focus on fiscal matters and deliver on his basic promises, he stands a good chance of transforming a populist wave into a productive government.
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