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How Ontario became Ford Nation
Political anger has won the day in Ontario, and the rest of Canada may soon feel the consequences, writes Jeffrey Simpson

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Saturday, June 9, 2018 – Page O1

Jeffrey Simpson is an author and former national-affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Doug Ford? Doug Ford! In Ontario, of all places?! Surely, Ford Nation can't win there, not with a leader so unfamiliar with facts and rational discourse, not in Canada's fulcrum province, the place of habitual moderation.

Not in a province with great universities, the national capital, the national mainstream media, the chartered banks, the place where political radicalism and populism go to die. Anti-establishment politics just can't govern where the establishment rules.

Can it?

Apparently, it can. And will for the next four years. Ontario - and Canada - get ready. Doug Ford, improbable as it sounds, will be premier, leading a majority government.

Mr. Ford did not publish a detailed platform. He could not offer detailed answers to any questions. He campaigned with slogans and dubious promises. He has almost no experience. But his Progressive Conservative Party captured, as did the New Democrats in a more limited way, the fierce desire for change that sent the Liberals crashing to the most humiliating defeat in the 151-year history of Ontario. William Davis, Ontario's best postwar premier and a Progressive Conservative icon, still kicking at 88 years of age, once said that, in Ontario, "bland works." No more.

A quivering political anger reverberated around Ontario before the election; a sense of disappointment pervaded the campaign. The New Democrats, who won the campaign but not the election, offered a very old mixture of big social spending, higher taxes and more borrowing. The Liberals had simply been around too long and had wavered between trying to restrain spending to balance the budget and promising huge new spending. If the Liberals couldn't figure out who they were, how were Ontarians supposed to know? And the Progressive Conservatives, well, they offered Mr. Ford.

The party leaders aped Three Blind Mice. They ignored - presumably because they believed Ontarians did not care - the fiscal wall ahead. Said the province's Financial Accountability Office in its last report: Ontarians face "a continued deterioration in [their] budget with the deficit reaching $12.7-billion by 2020-21."

Debt payments now account for more than the entire education and training budget, and the payments will go higher. The province has already experienced downgrades from two key ratings agencies, Moody's and DBRS. Its net debt will soon pass $400-billion, making it one of the world's most indebted subnational governments. This from what used to be Canada's fiscal bulwark.

The NDP and Liberals, as you would expect, completely ignored the fiscal wall. Even Mr. Ford promised billions in new spending, then purported to pay for his promises, while balancing the budget, by sending in auditors to investigate government spending. Ontario's problem is not an auditing one, but the structural mismatch between revenues and expenditures, most of which are for employeeheavy public programs where three-quarters of budgets are devoted to wages and benefits.

Slash there and you either lay off workers or cut salaries. Hello, labour turmoil.

Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker once remarked that a long road in politics never lacked for ash cans.

After a decade and a half in power, the Ontario Liberals' long road featured plenty of them.

They lost official party status with a risible seven seats, testament to how thoroughly they had discredited themselves.

Liberal premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne were different a bit in style and occasionally in substance, but they both believed in the benevolence of expanded government and the virtues of social engineering. Ms. Wynne tried fitfully in her second term to curb some of those beliefs, given the province's darkening fiscal circumstances. But having finally produced a balanced budget after years of deficits, she entered the campaign showering costly promises everywhere, willingly countenancing new borrowing, trying politically to outflank the New Democrats.

Ms. Wynne's last budget made her look desperate, which indeed she was. It reflected her true instincts as a big-spending Liberal, which brought the party back to where it had begun 15 years earlier.

Mr. McGuinty's platform in 2003 had offered a welter of promises, some quite expensive, none too small for inclusion. Politically speaking, most of them were unnecessary since the Mike Harris/Ernie Eves years of Conservative rule were staggering to a close. The Liberals could have mouthed a few platitudes, offered a couple of concrete suggestions, avoided all controversies and coasted to victory.

Coast to victory they did, costly platform in hand, with 46.5 per cent of the popular vote and 72 seats, compared with 24 for the Progressive Conservatives and seven for the NDP. This platform, and the philosophy and political strategy behind it, became the template not only for future Ontario Liberal governments, but also for the federal Liberals of Justin Trudeau, whose closest advisers came from within the McGuinty camp such that the federal government since 2015 could be nicknamed Toronto-onthe Rideau.

What was tried in Toronto - expansive social programs, money for every cause, "identity politics" and scant regard for deficits and debt - became the federal Liberals' governing motif. They would be quite foolish, facing an election in 16 months, to brush aside their Ontario provincial cousins' collapse as of no consequence to them. The federal and provincial Liberal parties are tightly aligned. Their approach to government was identical.

Their pollsters were the same.

Doug Ford's win, albeit under different circumstances, sends federal Liberals a flashing yellow light.

That 2003 Ontario provincial election was the apogee of Liberal popularity, a historical marker to be compared with the party's humiliation 15 years later. Believers in big government, and convinced the Harris/Eves years had eviscerated public services, the McGuintyites poured money into health care and education. They delivered all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes to the delight of teachers' unions who would later turn against them, gratitude being the most ephemeral of political emotions. They injected 7-per-cent yearly increases into health care that bought no serious reforms, but made hospital administrators, nurses and especially physicians richer.

They closed the province's coal-fired power plants, producing the single-largest decline of greenhouse emissions in Canada.

This very positive decision for combatting climate change carried a price tag for which Ms. Wynne paid dearly politically.

Coal was dirty but cheap; renewables were clean but expensive. As a recent Financial Accountability Office report showed, the per-unit cost of a megawatt hour from wind power is $173 and from solar $480, much higher than nuclear ($69) or hydro ($58) or coal. Many are the reasons for Ontario's high energy prices, but the financial force-feeding of wind and solar, and the renewal of nuclear plants at a huge price, are among them. They are also the easiest to criticize by the Liberals' political opponents, neither of which offered a remotely credible solution to the problem of high prices during the campaign.

Climate virtue exacted a political cost. When the Liberals cancelled two gas-fired electrical plants near vulnerable seats, the decision cost the taxpayers an estimated $1-billion. When they spread wind farms across the province, as in Western Ontario and around Kingston, the reaction was sulphurous, except from landowners who collected rents from the turbines. These were among the accumulating ash cans.

The public had already soured somewhat on the Liberals when Ms. Wynne became leader. A competent, moderate PC party would likely have defeated her in 2014 because Ontario even then seemed ready for a change.

Instead, as the party deeply impregnated by anti-government sentiments, the PCs offered Tim Hudak as leader and a promise to cut 100,000 publicservice jobs. The party's base - long removed from the moderation of the Bill Davis years when Conservatives understood the complications of governing - rejoiced at such red-meat stuff.

Most Ontarians were appalled.

Instead of winning, the PC share of the popular vote fell four points and the party dropped nine seats. Had the PCs taken nine seats instead of the reverse, they would have won.

"Populism" is the word most often used to describe the approach of the contemporary PCs and its current leader, Doug Ford.

Remember, though, that but for the misfortunes and indiscretions of Patrick Brown, dumped as leader on the eve of the campaign, Mr. Ford would have remained a loud voice banging around the margins of the party, someone not taken very seriously because of his self-evident ignorance of policy and propensity for grandiose, self-admiring declarations on whatever seemed to pop into his head.

Mr. Brown had imposed a moderate platform (including a carbon tax) on the party to sand its rough edges. His disappearance deep-sixed any suggestion of moderation. With Mr. Ford, it's populism with all its worst characteristics and few of its better ones: sloganeering, simplistic nonsense for policy, appeals to base instincts, and the belief that government is the problem, even the enemy of the people's interests.

Remember, too, that Mr. Ford would never have won the leadership but for the party's decision to create a Mad Hatter process as crazy as the U.S. electoral college system. The process allowed Christine Elliott to win the most votes in a majority of ridings but still lose the leadership.

Remember, too, that Ford-style populism still only attracted about two-fifths of the votes. The PC Leader repelled more than he attracted. A landslide it was not.

Mr. Ford's ascendancy cements the PCs' long transformation from a party of the powerful to a party of those who feel alienated from power. The party's strongholds are in rural areas, small towns and some suburbs.

According to Ekos Research, Conservative voters have less formal education than supporters of other parties. Men favour the PCs over the other parties. They are the preferred party of those who describe themselves as "poor."

Central areas of Toronto and Ottawa with their affluence, trendiness, diversity, cultural institutions, government buildings, museums and concert halls, head offices, startup companies, large hospitals and universities are now NDP strongholds. Karl Marx would be shaking his head.

The political revolt is against Big Government not a demand for more of it. The revolt is about economic dislocation, or the fear of it; but it also expresses the loss of cultural certainties when incumbent governments practise "identity politics," slicing and dicing and appealing to subsets of the electorate based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or Indigenous ancestry rather than to the population as a whole.

It was only a matter of time before a reaction - or revolt - against "identity politics" arrived in Canada, since it had already manifested itself in other Western democracies. It hit first in this Ontario election; it will hit elsewhere unless governments that practise "identity politics" wise up.

Ontario voting also mirrors the deepening political cleavage between urban, affluent, ethnically diverse Canada and hinterland areas whose economies are struggling, whose populations are not very multicultural and for whom the elites' messages of "inclusiveness" seems to include everybody but them.

These are among the emotions that animate Donald Trump's supporters. Only an unwelcome Canadian sense of moral superiority would insist that the same sorts of sentiments could not animate many voters here, even in good, old stable Ontario.

What happened on Thursday night in Ontario had already occurred in British Columbia where the centre-right Liberal Party captured almost all the seats in the hinterland outside the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. The same hinterland/urban divide cuts across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. We shall see whether the emerging pattern holds in the fall election in Quebec.

The Ontario election also put paid to the oft-repeated, but usually wrong assertion that a good economy helps incumbents.

Prime minister Paul Martin lost a federal election amid a booming economy. The Quebec economy is doing better than at any point in four decades, yet the incumbent Liberals are in trouble. And in Ontario, the aggregate economic numbers (as opposed to the fiscal situation) are strong, but the government lost.

Aggregates deceive because they minimize those left behind and, most important, they do not take account of the fear of uncertainties and the very high levels of personal debt that lead to worries about today's payments and tomorrow's obligations.

A worried electorate is never good for incumbents. It is, by contrast, good for populists.

Mr. Ford is unschooled in government, but will he know what he does not know? Nothing in his career thus far suggests a capacity to learn and evolve, but to trust his instincts and to animate his excitable base. A moderate province will now be led by a born disrupter.

If right-winger Jason Kenney becomes Alberta's premier, a Ford-Kenney axis (aided by Conservative premiers from Saskatchewan and Alberta) could make federal-provincial relations tempestuous and political life awkward for the federal government, starting with their joint determination to smash Ottawa's intricate plan to price carbon.

Mr. Ford will undoubtedly tangle with Justin Trudeau. The style of their fights might be distinct, but Ontario premiers have often been from a different political party from that of the prime minister: Mr. Davis and Pierre Trudeau; David Peterson and Brian Mulroney; Dalton McGuinty and Stephen Harper.

Add Mr. Ford's victory to the possible (likely?) win by the Coalition Avenir Québec, the probable defeat next year of the NDP government in Alberta with which the federal Liberals are so cozy, the already fractious relations with B.C.'s NDP government and federal-provincial relations are about to become more turbulent after a period of relative tranquility.

So will Ontario politics. The Doug Ford show will ensure it.

Associated Graphic

Oct. 3, 2003: The Globe and Mail's front page announces the election victory of Dalton McGuinty's Ontario Liberals.


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