Canada: Right wing “populist” Doug Ford wins Ontario’s election

Doug Ford (photo: CC)

Doug Ford’s victory in Ontario’s election has sent shock waves across Canada and beyond, with fears that Canada’s most populous province (9 million people) has elected Canada’s Donald Trump.

This shows that the reputation of Canadian politics for being fairly dull and predictable is not the case. The last six months in Ontario started with a sex scandal, had a rollercoaster election and ended on June 7 with the election of a Conservative government.  The election outcome in the final weeks was by no means certain. 

15 years of the Liberals and enter Doug Ford

At the start of 2018, it looked as if the unpopular Liberals, 15 years in power, were heading for a predictable defeat. They are remembered for corruption scandals, the privatization of Ontario Hydro (electricity utility) and attacks on education workers’ bargaining rights. Even the desperate and opportunist attempts to revive their ‘left’ credentials in their last year in office, by announcing a $15 minimum wage, labour reforms and expanded programs like pharmacare, dental care and child care, were not enough to produce a Lazarus-like resurrection.

The obvious beneficiary seemed to be the Conservatives, the official opposition party. Prior to January, their leader, Patrick Brown, had effectively outmanoeuvred the influential social conservative tendency in the party’s base so that attacks on abortion, gay marriage, the Liberals’ sex education curriculum would not be in the party programme. He also took on the climate change sceptics in the party, convincing the majority of the need to live with the Liberals’ cap and trade policy. 

But in January, two young women came forward with charges of sexual misconduct against Brown. He was forced to resign, triggering an internal leadership election. Doug Ford stepped in, going on to win by a hair’s breadth. From then on, the polls indicated that the election was going to be a cakewalk for Ford – up at around 42%, the Liberals at 26%, the New Democratic Party (NDP), a party with social democratic roots, at 22%, and the Greens at 5%. Throughout March and April, this scenario looked likely to be born out with the standings staying much the same, the Tories dropping just a couple of insignificant points. But then drama returned in May with a turnaround in party fortunes – the Liberals going into free fall (down to 21%) and the NDP (37%) overtaking the Conservatives (36%).

Ford, the man of the people

Doug Ford was not even a parliamentarian when he won the leadership in February. His political experience was as a Toronto City Councillor. Rather it was his late, infamous, crack cocaine smoking brother Rob, Toronto Mayor from 2010 to 2014, who provided the launching pad for Doug to establish a profile that would eventually extend beyond Toronto and appeal to the right-wing base in other parts of Ontario. Both Rob and Doug were the faces of “Ford Nation,” a phrase that came to represent the right-wing populism espoused by the Fords.

Ford shares many of the features of right-wing populist movements in the US and other parts of the world:

• anti-elitism (but note that Ford is a part of a family business that generates $100m in sales). For example, Ford wants to fire the “six million dollar man,” the CEO of publicly-owned Ontario Hydro who is on a $6m salary;
• an appeal to “the little guy,” while still cosying-up to small and big business
• eliminating government “waste”
• cutting taxes, and ending “the gravy train” (perks, expenses and trips of elected government officials)
• privatization of inefficient, “expensive” public services

Is Ford Canada’s Trump?

Is Ford Canada’s Trump? Yes and no. Both Ford and Trump espouse the elements of populism listed above. There are similarities in their style too – “telling it like it is”, anti-intellectualism and looseness with the facts. However, there are important differences. First, although Ford definitely appeals to the bigots, racism is not a card he plays, mainly because the Ford brothers early on developed their electoral base in the working class and immigrant areas of Toronto. Likewise, he has distanced himself from the Islamaphobic elements in his Party, even if he was cynically prepared to use those elements to defeat his more “moderate” challengers for party leader. Ford also disassociated himself, after the fact, from his more exuberant followers who, at one rally, chanted, Trump style, “Lock her [Premier Kathleen Wynne] up.”

Toronto Star columnist, Rick Salutin, referred to the Ford phenomenon in this way. Salutin had asked a young millennial about a survey showing that most young people were veering towards Ford. The millennial, “wasn’t surprised. You people, he said, have no idea how angry people his age are. In their entire lives they’ve known nothing but disappointment. Vast student debt, Mideast wars, the crash of ’08. They’ll never own a house, have secure careers or live in a lively urban downtown. Many already believe a family is unreachable. Some will, or are, living with parents…..They’ve been screwed. And there you have it. The populist message is: You’ve been screwed, and I’m with ya. Doug Ford has the most stripped-down version of this in the world: ‘You know me. I’m for the little guy.’ Full stop. He doesn’t do racism, misogyny, blaming immigrants and Muslims, except inadvertently, and then he reverses. It’s populism made easy and it’s working.”

Turning of the tide – Ford’s colours revealed

Well, it was working for a good part of the campaign, but then things changed. At the beginning of the campaign, the focus for many voters was more on getting rid of Wynne and the Liberals, not so much on who would be the best replacement. As the campaign progressed questions began to be asked about Ford. His pot shots against the elite looked hollow when his proposed tax cuts for the middle class were shown to be benefiting the wealthiest people. For someone who was supposed to be looking out for the little guy, Ford’s position of opposing the scheduled increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour also did not sit well. He suggested, incorrectly, that his tax cut would more than compensate for not increasing the minimum wage. Yet doing the math proved the opposite. The typical worker on minimum wage would be $712 better off with an increase in that wage rather than with the tax cut. 

There were other issues. Ford was caught on camera conducting backroom talks with real-estate developers to open up Toronto area’s protected green-belt (Ford called them “just farmers’ fields”) to a frenzy of housing construction. As the campaign progressed people became increasingly concerned about Ford’s tax give aways, with no explanation of how this could be done without, at the same time, slashing public services.  On the campaign trail, his style was wooden and he showed himself to be a poor debater with little gasp of the issues beyond intoning “My friends…” and adding the same old slogans. His policy platform, described as “skeletal,” was only made public in the last week of the campaign.

All this contributed to many people starting to look for a way of dumping the Liberals but without bringing in Ford. The logical choice was Andrea Horwath and the NDP.

The fall of the NDP

The NDP was in power once in Ontario, during the 1990-95 government of Bob Rae. While elected on a radical platform, Rae’s government, faced with an economic recession, quickly abandoned its policies, moving towards austerity. It was a disaster – tearing up of public sector workers’ contracts, imposing a wage freeze and forcing unpaid leave days. Rae also abandoned one of the NDP’s more popular promises, the public ownership of auto insurance. Rae’s unpopularity paved the way for the election in 1995 of the Conservatives, with slash-and-burn Mike Harris at the helm. 

Since then, the NDP has been the third place party in Ontario. In the 2011 election, the NDP pledged to put the province’s large-scale electrical generating capacity back in public hands. Horwath, elected NDP leader in 2009, said that the Liberal government’s gradual move to privatize power had pushed prices up. 

In the 2014 election, the NDP, also under Horwath’s leadership, presented a pathetic challenge to the Liberals, offering what they considered to be a safe and non-radical alternative. Gone was the talk of public power and other interventionist proposals they had previously espoused. While they had a few good pledges, their whole approach was insipid. The platform’s weakness provoked a group of 34 high-profile NDP supporters to take the unusual step of publicly threatening to break with the party. Horwath ignored them as she continued her unrequited love affair with small business. 

As the NDP was moving right, the Liberals were moving left and they both ended up in a similar place with the Liberals slightly to the NDP’s left. As journalist, Thomas Walkom, pointed out, “both parties were trying to square the same circle. Both said they could spend wisely on job creation and necessary social programs while trimming waste. Both said that by 2017-18 they would bring the province’s finances back into balance.” Like many social democratic parties, the NDP accepted as given all of capitalism’s fiscal premises. “It’s no surprise that Horwath and Wynne came to the same conclusion. It [the NDP] then added and subtracted around the edges to come up with a near-identical scenario.” 

The rise of the NDP

It was inevitable that there would be dissension in the NDP ranks following the poor performance of 2014 but it did not develop to the extent of challenging Horwath’s leadership. Some lessons were learned – that playing it safe and allowing the Liberals to outflank you on the left does not bring electoral success. Yet they did not go as far as drawing the lessons from outside Ontario where campaigning left movements, such as those of Corbyn or Sanders, showed concretely how a more barnstorming approach could work. This time round, the NDP was much better than in 2014, including a promise to return Ontario Hydro to full public ownership, the introduction of comprehensive dental care, pharmacare and affordable childcare programs, as well as strengthening rent control by dealing with the issue of “renovictions”. The Liberals tried to revive their fortunes by also moving left and stealing some of the NDP’s program. But that ship sailed a long time ago – given her unpopularity and her record, Wynne was not going to gain anything from tacking left this time.

It was clear that most of the support that the NDP had picked up came from disillusioned Liberal voters. In addition, there was a decline in strategic voting in the labour movement which would have meant that more trade union members voted NDP. In the past four Ontario elections, many unions have not come out wholeheartedly for the NDP. The leaderships’ advice to their members was to vote ABC (Anything But Conservative) that is, support the candidate, be it Liberal or NDP, who was best placed to defeat the Conservatives. The biggest union in Canada, Unifor, was still in the ABC camp a few days up to the election with its website saying “stop the conservatives … pledge to vote and volunteer.”

However, it was significant that the provincial elementary teachers’ union, for the first time, openly came out in support of the NDP. To her credit, Horwath did not downplay union support. Both Wynne and Ford tried to portray the NDP as being in the pockets of the unions, citing the fact that Horwath recently refused to support back to work legislation for striking university education assistants.

But was that going to be enough? It’s interesting how the Ottawa Citizen reported a Horwath rally at a Toronto hospital: “Horwath’s audience loved her, as you’d expect, but it was the idea of making the rich pay their fair share that caused a chant of ‘NDP! NDP! NDP!’ to break out.” If Horwath were to have picked up on that and campaigned boldly around the province, in the manner of Corbyn or Sanders, with a platform to tax the rich to pay for the NDP’s social programs and more, NDP support would have grown by leaps and bounds.

Election result – has Ontario moved right?

In the end, the hopes of the NDP pulling off a surprise victory did not materialize. There was no big surge of support from young people, women or low-income people that had boosted Sanders and Corbyn.

Ontario workers are now faced with the prospect of the most right-wing government since the days of Mike Harris in the 1990s. Does this victory of a right-wing, populist signify that Ontario (and, by implication, Canada, as a whole, given Ontario’s weight within the country) has lurched to the right?
Ford won 40% of the popular vote (only 4.5% more than the Conservatives got in 2014 when they lost) but in Canada’s first-past-the-post system it has translated into an overall majority of 28 seats. As one commentator noted, “Ontario voters did not radically change their political views, but movement at the margins radically changed their politicians.” (Peter Graefe, The Tyee, 9 June 2018). In other words 60% of Ontarians, who voted, chose parties that supported going ahead with an increase in the minimum wage to $15, expanding child care programs and introducing denticare and pharmacare. Beyond the 60-40 split of those who voted are the 42% who stayed home.

So, it would be a mistake to conclude that Ontarians have moved significantly to the right. What we can say is that voters are angry, fed up and volatile. The vote in some way fits into a pattern seen elsewhere – Brexit, elections in the US, France and Italy, to name a few – without the racism and xenophobia seen in those. But more than anything, Ford’s victory is a rejection of the governing Liberals who were decimated, retaining only seven MPPs.

Doug Ford will find that he will have a fight on his hands if he tries to cancel the scheduled $15 minimum wage increase and/or if he finds his “billions in efficiencies” through slashing spending on social programs such as health and education. Many of those workers who voted for him, taken in by his rhetoric of being the fighter for the little guy, and many who sat the election out, will join the inevitable protests that have the potential to dwarf the “Days of Action” that was a feature of the Harris era in the 1990s.

Could it have been any different?

The NDP does not seem particularly disappointed with the election outcome. They congratulated themselves on having had their second best ever election result. In a sense, they are right. In terms of votes won and that they are now the official opposition in Parliament, those are worthy of recognition. However, it could have been very different. They had a more left-wing program than in 2014, this time being to the left of the Liberals, and they were more openly in solidarity with organized labour and low paid workers. Yet Horwath was still keen to project herself as “safe and dependable” by managing the province and the economy. It is a sad reflection on the appeal of the NDP, that the 7% increased voter turnout benefited the Conservatives more than the NDP.

Horwath’s party is not a campaigning socialist force that organizes and mobilizes between elections. Most of its local branches are shells which only come alive at election time. Missing from this election, and indeed all NDP election campaigns, was the fighting spirit of, say, the Sanders or Corbyn campaigns – no mass rallies either in Toronto or in hockey arenas in small town Ontario aimed at “the 99%” or “the many not the few.”

Had Horwath been campaigning around the province in that way over the last three years, support for right-wing populism could have been greatly undermined.  Another factor impeding NDP progress was the political role of organized labour. Over the last 20 years, it has been shameful. More from lethargy and routine, some unions, usually the more conservative ones, continued to endorse the NDP. The majority, however, adopted the approach of strategic voting which, in practice, often meant supporting Liberal candidates, including donating money and person power to Liberal campaigns. This time, seeing which way the wind was blowing (the late upsurge for the NDP), some unions that had formerly played the strategic voting game jumped off the fence, a couple of them at the eleventh hour! Too little, too late.

What lies ahead?

As some wise person remarked, “the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.” As the Ford attacks are unleashed, a lot will depend on the reaction of organized labour, rank and file union activists and the left.

It is commendable that the 15 and Fairness campaign in conjunction with the Ontario Federation of Labour, months ago, had planned a Toronto rally to take place a week after the election. Its purpose was to mobilize people to defend and promote, among other things, the implementation of the $15 minimum wage. Quite rightly, this rally was conceived on the basis that, no matter which party won on June 7, working people would have to rely on their own strength to stand up to the demands of big business. This June 16 rally could provide the focal point and impetus for building a mass province-wide opposition to the Ford agenda. And one thing is certain – Socialist Alternative members and supporters in Ontario will be fully participating in that movement.

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