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Election rumours invite reflections on Doug Ford’s record in Ontario

Election rumours invite reflections on Doug Ford’s record in Ontario

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Election rumours invite reflections on Doug Ford’s record in Ontario

Even with the Ontario legislature rising for an extended summer break, the province’s politics have been rife with rumours of an early election call by Conservative Premier Doug Ford.

Past experience suggests that this could be a high-risk strategy, especially only two years into a June 2022 majority mandate that ultimately rested on the ballots of less than 18 per cent of eligible Ontario voters.

Why now?

A number of potential rationales for an early election call in Ontario have been offered:

 Getting ahead of further fallout from the Greenbelt land removal scandal that will flow from freedom-of-information requests and an RCMP investigation.

 A possible change in the federal government with the possibility of a new government being less willing to facilitate and finance Ford’s grandiose nuclear energy and highway megaprojects.

 A bigger potential for the consequences of earlier decisions to come home to roost, ranging from the financial crisis in the post-secondary education sector to ongoing challenges around health careeducation and affordable housing, especially rental housing.

 An opportunity to interfere with the ability of the new leader of the Ontario Liberal Party to raise funds, establish a presence and build a public profile while the Ford government remains ahead in the polls.

The basis of Ford’s political success

The Ford government’s political success so far, despite numerous missteps and scandals, has a lot to do with the effectiveness of its rhetorical response to the impact of Ontario’s transition from an industrial- to service-based economy.

Ford’s form of market populism has combined a deeply pro-business policy approach with a populist focus on reducing costs to consumers, like taxes and hydro rates, in the short term. But in doing so, the province’s labour market has also become increasingly polarized in terms of geography, income and employment security.

Ford weathered the challenges of COVID-19 by incorporating a more activist, “get it done” stance into his style of governing. At the same time, his political rivals failed to provide compelling alternative visions of Ontario’s economic future.

Those seeking to unseat the Ford government in the next provincial election will need to offer different and compelling ways to address the polarized labour market and economic divisions in Ontario. These ideas will need to move beyond the neoliberal and populist ideals that underpin Ford’s political success.

A balding man in a white T-shirt wearing a black mask gets a COVID-19 shot.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford receives a COVID-19 vaccine from a pharmacist at a Shoppers Drug Mart during the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Vulnerable on environment, climate

With this in mind, the environment and climate change remain key areas of vulnerability for the Ford government because they illustrate its fundamentally reactive governance style. Another bad forest fire season this summer could further underscore the province’s lack of any credible plan for reducing GHG emissions or responding to the impacts of a changing climate.

Ontario’s record of emission reductions flowing from the 2003-2013 phaseout of coal-fired electricity and wider industrial restructuring has largely played out. Emissions are now rising, especially from the electricity sector, with a dramatic growth in the role of natural gas-fired generation, along with increases related to building heating and cooling and transportation.

In those sectors, the government is focused on expanding access to fossil fuels — particularly natural gas for space heating — and building new highways.

Voters agitating?

The successful mobilization of organized labour against the Ford government’s proposed use of the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose a contract on education workers highlights the risks of further significant social and political action against the government.

The widespread outrage over the government’s removal of land from the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt for urban development again emphasized Ford’s potential vulnerabilities, despite his current lead in the opinion polls.

The question of who actually wins under Ford’s market populism must also loom large — everyday Ontario residents or well-connected developersresource industries and entrenched incumbents in the energy and for-profit health-care sectors?

A man in the foreground behind a lectern is blurred with rows of tradespeople behind him and Highway 413 signs in sharp focus.
With tradespeople behind him, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces the construction of Ontario Highway 413, in Caledon, Ont., in April 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston.

Fiscal irresponsibility?

There are also growing questions about the government’s fiscal responsibility.

Over the last two years, the government has committed at least $150 billion in large energy and transportation infrastructure projects. Many of these projects — including Highway 413, the Highway 404-to-400 Bradford Bypass and the Pickering B nuclear station refurbishment — have been previously assessed as unnecessary and uneconomic.

The emerging financial impacts of accelerating the initiative to make beer and wine available at corner stores have the potential to add hundreds of millions more to the government’s pattern of casually scrapping stable long-term revenue streams. In addition to the $225 million in up-front compensation to The Beer Store, there are projected losses to the province in LCBO revenues, licencing and cost-of-service fees.

More broadly, the province has lost approximately $1 billion a year in revenues from the cancellation of the greenhouse gas cap and trade program, the elimination of vehicle licencing fees and reductions in the provincial gasoline tax.

What’s more, there’s an ongoing $7 billion a year diversion of general revenues designed to artificially lower hydro rates. This strategy takes funds needed urgently in areas like health care and education and effectively uses them to hide the actual costs of previous nuclear refurbishment projects.

All of these factors should amount to a moment of deep political vulnerability for the Ford government. But how voters might actually respond to an early election call if — unlike in 2022 — they respond at all, remains an open question.

By York University Professor Mark Winfield, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

This article is republished from The Conversation Canada.