Win or lose, Doug Ford has remade Ontario politics no matter what happens on June 2.
Never mind who comes out on top on election day. In fact, every poll shows Ford’s Tories cruising to re-election.
Forget for a moment the fight for second place. The bitter competition pitting New Democrats against Liberals looks to the media like the main event, but even that is a sideshow.
What counts in the end is that after four years as premier — and likely another four to come (unless voters change their minds soon) — Ford has altered the face of the province. And reshaped his Progressive Conservatives along the way.
No less significant, in the campaign’s first week, is that Ford’s shape-shifting ways have triggered major changes in the way rival parties compete against him — and each other.
The NDP has morphed dramatically from its social democratic roots after 13 years and four campaigns with Andrea Horwath as leader, now trying — like all of the others — to be all things to all people. No longer a traditional tax-and-spend party, it has transmogrified into a free-spending, fee-rebating, tax-freezing movement.
Horwath promises more dental care, long-term care and mental health care. Yet in an echo of Ford’s Tories, she vows no new taxes on your income up to $200,000.
In the first days of his first general election, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca is pushing his party in a different direction — or more precisely, all directions — as a political unknown trying to make a name for himself in a hurry. Like the PCs and NDP, Del Duca’s Liberals are going for gimmicky, sticky ideas that voters might remember — a buck-a-ride transit plan, tax-free takeout food, a ban on handguns, capping all class sizes and restoring Grade 13.
Taken together, the aftershocks of Ford’s political earthquake have unleashed a tsunami of over-the-top election promises from all parties — destined to engulf the province in red ink long after the politics of the pandemic have receded. With each leader making multi-billion-dollar promises by the day, the die is cast even before any ballots are cast.
Despite obvious differences in style and substance, there are growing similarities among the rivals.
Ford is not the same disruptive politician he was in 2018, but his PC party is also unrecognizable. The Tories came to power promising to freeze the minimum wage, cut health care, undo pharmacare, dial down child care, cancel paid sick days, rein in spending, restrain salaries and bash so-called union “bosses.”
Now, in his bid for redemption and re-election, Ford is redoing all that undoing: sick days made a partial comeback, the minimum wage went up (slowly), health care spending is rising, hospitals are growing, pharmacare is coming and child care is expanding (the latter two courtesy of federal funding).
Oh, and he lavishes praise on elected union leaders — no longer big bad “bosses” — when they pose for once-unfathomable photo-ops beside him.
The restoration of what Ford once rolled back won’t make up for missed opportunities and lost time. But even if the original sin is unforgivable, the reversal is undeniable.
At the same time, Ford has refocused his own vision for voters — starting with vehicles. At one event, a sign on his podium proclaimed, “Doug Ford for Drivers.”
Billions of dollars will be spent on removing road tolls and paving over the province (and part of the Greenbelt), starting with the controversial Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass that target suburbanites across the vote-rich 905. The NDP and Liberals oppose the 413 because of the potential costs — environmental and fiscal.
Yet both Horwath and Del Duca were loath to be spoilsports when Ford cynically rebated licence plate renewal fees, and then crassly lowered the provincial gas tax. If you can’t beat Ford at his own game, join the game of playing tax-fighter.
Hence Del Duca’s promise to remove the provincial tax on prepared food under $20. The headline on Horwath’s platform announcement was a four-year freeze on taxes on “middle class” earners — whom she defined as “folks” earning up to $200,000 per annum, per person.
Still, for all of Ford’s courting of commuters and baiting of opponents, he is simultaneously talking up transit. On Friday, he held court in Bowmanville to remind voters that his Tories have allocated billions of dollars for route expansions across Toronto and the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
For all of the convergence among the rivals — each now promising to spend more yet cut taxes while ignoring the deficit — they spend most of their time claiming how dissimilar they are because of their political DNA.
Ford badmouths Del Duca as a clone of the last Liberal premier, Kathleen Wynne, whom he claimed in 2018 was enriching her “buddies.” Horwath, for her part, badmouths Ford as a drone controlled by his developer “buddies” (there’s that word again); she also trash-talks Del Duca as derivative of Wynne — you get the idea.
The ghosts of Wynne (out of power since 2018) and her predecessor Dalton McGuinty (gone since 2013) have transformed the campaign trail into a time travel machine. Also looming in the background are the legacies of Bob Rae’s NDP government (gone in 1995) and Mike Harris’s Tories (he quit in 2002).
The ghost of Harris came back to haunt Ford when he was asked how today’s anti-toll Tories can justify those Highway 407 tolls — triggered by a previous PC government handing it all off to private operators. Caught in the contradiction, Ford couldn’t help criticizing what Harris wrought.
It was a reminder that Ford is far more of a pocketbook populist than a loyalist Progressive Conservative. Yes, he wants to cut government down to size; but unlike Harris-era Tories, he can’t bear to be disliked or booed — and so he’ll reflexively raise spending to give people more of what they want, with lower taxes, deficit be damned.
That’s the internal contradiction and enduring legacy of Ford’s Tories, embodied by his populism. Which is why today’s New Democrats and Liberals are doing more of the same thing — reining in taxes while boosting spending (albeit on different things).
The political calculus is easy to see. The economic calculations are harder to follow.
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