Illustrations by Remie Geoffroi
This is a story about two elections: the one about the “change” Ontarians might have had if circumstances hadn’t thrown the province into political chaos, and the one we are now facing, which is about change and much more.
While the first contest would probably have wobbled, like a low-energy pendulum, between centre-right and centre-left visions of good government, today’s battle is causing that pendulum to swing widely between two poles. The province is being asked to choose between right-wing, anti-government populism and the prospect of significant improvements to Ontario’s social policies and higher-quality public services.
The political narrative shifted rapidly and dramatically. At the beginning of the year, polls were rating Kathleen Wynne the least popular premier in Canada. And after 15 years of Liberal governance (five on her watch), the opposition parties were priming for a ballot box question centred on “change.” The only question seemed to be: what kind of change would Ontarians choose?
NDP leader Andrea Horwath, polling as the most likeable party leader (yet struggling then to translate that into a rise in NDP support), unveiled a vision document under the slogan Change For The Better. Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservative’s leader at the time, Patrick Brown—who polls indicated was the most likely to win an election—was calling for Change That Works For You. The guarantee in Brown’s platform was simple: if, as premier, he failed to deliver the goods in his first term, he would personally resign.
Today, Brown is sitting as an independent, ditched by his party following allegations of impropriety (which he steadfastly denies), triggering a shotgun leadership campaign to replace him. Enter Doug Ford, brother of the deceased Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto. Arguably the most dramatic pre-election period in Ontario’s history has set the stage for one of the province’s—and perhaps Canada’s—more polarizing election campaigns.
Ford immediately dropped his predecessor’s rather moderate (for the PCs) platform and had only promised a five-point plan when the Monitor went to print. But he is waging a populist campaign on the steam of what he calls Ford Nation, an audience borrowed from brother Rob that has readily jeered and booed at the very mention of Premier Wynne’s name during Trump-like rallies.
Comparisons to Trump’s successful campaign are legion in the press. The Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn pointed out in early April how Ford, himself a one-time Toronto city councillor, alleged the PC leadership vote would be rigged against him, once attacked the Toronto police as being out to smear his family name, and often plays fast and loose with the facts.
Ford discounted the similarities in an interview with CTV News in March. “We’ve been in politics for 30 years, before even Donald Trump even existed,” he said, but went on to praise the recent U.S. corporate tax cut, from 36% to 21%, for allegedly bringing U.S. manufacturing jobs back “in droves.” In fact, manufacturing jobs have been recovering fairly steadily in the U.S. since 2010, and recent spurts are the result of several factors, including the return of oil prices and a more “flexible” (read: underpaid and precarious) U.S. labour force, most of which predate his presidency.
You could even say Ford’s main campaign promise, though he doesn’t put it exactly this way, is to make Ontario great again. If there is a shaky policy foundation behind this idea it is his plan to find “efficiencies” in government without cuts or layoffs. Ford has promised to scrap sex education in schools, a nod to the social conservative faction that helped elect him PC leader. He rejects the carbon tax Brown had proposed to replace the Liberal government’s cap-and-trade program. And, if elected, he says he’ll fight the federal carbon tax as well, in court if needed.
Ford talks about how Wynne’s “cheques are going to bounce,” yet he displays a loose familiarity with things fiscal. Responding to the Ontario budget tabled on March 28, the PC leader misinterpreted a small ($200 on average) tax increase for those earning $130,000 or more, claiming “a family of five will be paying $1,000 more in new taxes.”
CBC reporter Mike Crawley asked Ford to explain the math. “We know that they've increased the taxes $200,” Ford said. “Times five is $1,000.” Crawley asked why the kids in that family of five were paying income tax. “I'm not saying kids,” Ford responded. “If there's five people in your house that are paying taxes, there's going to be five people paying $200 more in taxes.” It probably goes without saying how unlikely that situation is.
Should Ontario voters choose Ford at the polls on June 7, the province would lurch sharply to the right—perhaps even more so than it did after Mike Harris led the PC party to victory in 1995. Under Harris, the quest for tax cuts led to a war on the poor, a war on unions, a war on teachers and deep cuts to public services, notably health care and education, that still hurt today. As premier, Harris did practically everything he promised to do in his election platform, The Common Sense Revolution.
What Ford would do specifically, if elected, is anybody’s guess. But if he were even a quarter as busy as Harris was, it would dramatically alter the policy landscape that has unfolded, and continues to evolve, in Ontario of late.
A province that is coming to appreciate the power of government to do good things in people’s lives, and the value of fair taxation in achieving collective objectives, could be thrust back into another dark age of austerity, deregulation and the rule by the rich.
Kathleen Wynne took the premier’s job five years ago, in 2013, after a divided Liberal party chose her to replace Dalton McGuinty, who had stepped down after a decade in power. The McGuinty government had gotten a bit long in the tooth, and was shrouded by scandals. Top among them were the spending controversies at Ornge, the air ambulance service the Liberals privatized in 2006, and a controversial decision ahead of the 2011 election to scrap two unpopular natural gas plant projects at a cost to the public of $1 billion.
Then there were the decisions that harmed relationships with public sector workers. As the Liberals were choosing their new leader inside the former Maple Leaf Gardens in January 2013, tens of thousands of teachers and their allies rallied outside to protest anti-strike legislation the government had brought in to impose a contract. The McGuinty government had been implementing austerity budgets in the name of deficit reduction as recommended by the former banker Don Drummond. A majority of Drummond’s 362 proposed cuts were eventually adopted.
After so much catering to the party’s right wing, Wynne’s promise to her Liberal colleagues to be an “activist premier”—to set a new tone at Queen’s Park—made her the internal “change” candidate of 2013. She wasn’t supposed to win; many within her party thought former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello, a blue Liberal, would get the nod. But Wynne proved to be a formidable opponent.
When she took over as premier, the Liberals were at the head of a minority government facing a PC opposition led by Tim Hudak. Wynne’s first budget, delivered on her 100th day in office, made several concessions to the NDP in a bid to prevent a June 2013 election call. There was a nod to the NDP’s push for cheaper auto insurance, some funding announced for youth jobs (during a prolonged period of high post-recession youth unemployment), and money for better home care services. Vowing to vote against the budget, Hudak said “it is now awfully difficult, if not impossible, to tell the Liberals and the NDP apart.” The NDP would contest that characterization but support the government, putting off an election for another year.
In retrospect, the 2014 provincial election might look like a dress rehearsal for 2018, at least if you remove this year’s Patrick Brown drama. Early polls back then suggested Hudak had the potential to be premier-in-waiting, there was deepening mistrust of the governing Liberals, and Horwath remained the most popular of the three main candidates. Hudak came out of the gates with a promise to create a million jobs if the PCs were elected.. But, like Ford’s income tax calculations, those numbers didn’t add up, as the CCPA and others pointed out.
To add fuel to the fire, Hudak promised to cut 100,000 public sector jobs and bring in American-style “right-to-work” legislation, which would lead to union busting and more low-wage work (i.e., more workforce flexibility) in the province. It didn’t go over very well, not even on the right. In a fumbled attempt to capitalize on Hudak’s diminishing popularity, the NDP attempted to woo PC voters, losing some of its base in the process. Judy Rebick, the long-time Toronto social justice leader, said of the Ontario NDP, “They seem to be running on a kind of right-wing populism, not at all on party policy, or in any way talking about social justice or democracy.”
In the end, whatever Horwath’s team was trying to do didn’t work. Wynne secured a majority government on June 12, 2014. The Liberals will be aiming for a repeat performance this year.
Much has unfolded since the last Ontario election. The NDP has broken ground in two provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. Federally, Stephen Harper’s decade-old Conservative government was upended by the “sunny ways” of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. In Alberta, the NDP government became the first in Canada to commit to a $15 minimum wage. In B.C., the NDP campaigned on a $15 child care promise and won last spring’s election. Federally, the Liberal government is imposing a price on carbon, expanding affordable housing, and has made improvements to the national public pension plan.
Right-wing complaints of a national turn toward socialism are grossly exaggerated, but it is important to remember that not so very long ago the political backroom wisdom focused only on tax cuts and smaller government. The advent of social policy expansion represents a potential break from that prevailing neoliberal ideology, though a very uncertain one. We are at an interregnum—a potential disruption in the social order. How this highly contested terrain is shaped by the Ontario election might hint at political opportunities and challenges, as well as which way the electoral winds are blowing elsewhere in Canada.
In Ontario, the past year has been characterized by a notable shift in the political narrative. Premier Wynne has presided over the biggest overhaul of labour and employment law in a generation. After years of struggle, workers now have better vacation provisions, more sick pay, better control over work scheduling and equal pay for precarious work. The Wynne government raised the minimum wage from $11.60 to $14 on January 1 of this year and promises to bring it to $15 an hour by next January. (Horwath would do the same; Ford would freeze the minimum wage at $14.)
Despite a well-funded corporate lobby to resist the new labour reforms and quash the $15 and Fairness movement, public opinion has shifted in favour of these government interventions in the market. When Tim Hortons took action in January to eliminate workers’ breaks and some benefits in retaliation against the higher minimum wage, there was widespread public backlash. It hurt the brand. In fact, research firm Leger says Tim Hortons plummeted from the number four brand in Canada last year to number 50 this year.
And yet the sudden arrival of Ford on the provincial stage sets Ontario up for a critical test. Ontarians may not like how Tim Hortons has treated its workers this year. They may appreciate new social programs on offer. But if enough Ontarians can be convinced—by Ford, right-wing think-tanks, and much of the media—that the bigger problems are debt and taxes, none of this might matter.
Ford has a knack for being the centre of attention. He’s positioned himself as the “no nonsense” candidate who’s going to drain the swamp at Queen’s Park, cut taxes, and bring manufacturing back to Ontario in the one way conservatives do best: deregulate. The Liberals and NDP, on the other hand, appear to be competing for the share of voters who believe governments can afford to be much more activist. Both would expand social policy in ways we haven’t imagined possible for a long time, and that would create new jobs and new prosperity.
On January 1, the Wynne government implemented a first step toward a provincial pharmacare plan, making more than 4,400 prescription medications free for anyone aged 24 and under, and promising to do the same for seniors if re-elected. The NDP is proposing a pharmacare plan for everyone, to be in place by 2020, though at first only 125 “essential” drugs would be covered, with the stated goal of expanding that list in the future.
Horwath has also promised universal dental care as an expansion of the Ontario government’s Healthy Smiles program, which currently offers dental care to anyone 17 and under. To counter that, Wynne is promising to expand limited reimbursement for dental costs to those without extended health plans. What Ford thinks of either idea—pharmacare or dental care—is, as mentioned, anyone’s guess so far. Instead, he’s been focused on his mainstay talking point: Kathleen Wynne is writing cheques and those cheques are going to bounce.
Likewise, on child care the goal posts are moving on the progressive side. The Wynne campaign is promising to offer free child care for preschoolers aged two-and-a-half to four, at which point they enter free full-day kindergarten (a program implemented by the McGuinty government). At her April 16 platform launch, Horwarth raised the stakes by promising $12 child care for children of all ages and free child care for households making less than $40,000.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, whose party does not hold a provincial seat and had about 5% public support in early spring polls, is including a plank to address economic inequality—complete with a promise to reduce poverty, increase social assistance rates and introduce a basic income benefit rate at 100% of the Low Income Measure.
This is the kind of political battle for progressive ideas that helps everyone in the end.
The June election will be difficult to predict, but the challenges facing the next government will be the same regardless of who’s in charge. Since the global recession of 2008-09, Ontario’s economy has been on a slow growth path. Consumer spending has been doing much of the heavy lifting. But with a growing housing bubble in some cities (like Toronto), and mounting household debt, the economy is vulnerable to an interest rate hike, to another recession, and to trade wars that could choke Ontario exports to the United States, its biggest customer.
To fund her social policy expansion promises, Wynne is betting that Ontarians would rather accept a $6.7 billion deficit, to be paid down over six years, than hear about raising taxes. Horwarth, meanwhile, is promising to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, raising more revenue and planning on a smaller and shorter-term deficit than Wynne. Ford is anti-tax—whether on income, corporations or greenhouse gas emissions. Among the three front-runner parties, only the NDP is going into the election ready to talk about the taxes needed to pay for more and improved public services.
For years, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has been clear on the fact that Ontario has a revenue problem. Economist Hugh Mackenzie estimates that the province loses about $19 billion in cumulative annual revenue thanks to two decades of tax cuts. Unless the next premier is willing to address this problem, Ontario will carry long-term deficits (exposing itself to right-wing anti-debt critiques) or have to cut public programs or privatize more.
Given a growing and aging population, demand for public program expansion isn’t letting up, so making more cuts is politically unrealistic. Bottom line: while the conversation heading into this election is framed as a choice between progressive policy expansion or anti-government populism (care vs. change), the conversation about the taxes needed to fully fund any party’s promises has only just begun, with the NDP's willingness to introduce a new suite of taxes and run a far smaller deficit than the other parties.
As the wise Alex Himelfarb, CCPA-Ontario advisory board chair and former clerk to the privy council, has said, governments that are afraid to raise taxes have two choices—go into deficit or sell off public assets. Part of Wynne’s unpopularity rests on this fundamental dilemma. She decided to both go into deficit and sell off public assets, namely the province’s majority shares in Hydro One. Outrageously high hydro bills ensued and Wynne is having trouble living that down.
The moral of the story is that activist premiers may be capable of moving the needle on key social policies, but unless they’re equally progressive on the revenue side of the equation, it’s hard to strike a true balance.
At the beginning of this year, the race between Wynne, Horwath, Schreiner and Brown, though very much about “change,” was, under the hood, fuelled by policy. And that policy was, for the most part, sticking fairly close to the centre of the ideological spectrum, if not trending left. With Brown’s replacement by Ford, it’s not clear how much of that debate will survive the flash and brash of conservative populism, with its strong anti-government rhetoric.
It’s also unclear whether a polarizing election campaign will lead to greater voter engagement and higher voter turnout, or whether voters will get turned off and tune out. Democracies can’t be left on autopilot; they require engaged citizenry to hold governments accountable and to ensure they put the public interest first. Toronto survived the tumultuous populist politics of Rob Ford’s single term as mayor, but the city became more polarized and many vital social policy advancements still remain stalled four years later.
U.S.-style politics has come to Ontario and, if it prevails, may be coming to a province near you too.
Trish Hennessy is Director of the CCPA-Ontario.