There was no stopping Doug Ford’s re-election juggernaut.
But over the next four years, the populist premier will face roadblocks of his own making.
On the campaign trail, he stuck to his road map of promising all things to all people to keep on the path to power. Now, he is just as likely to fritter away that hard-won mandate.
Campaigning and governing are different skill sets. As Ford prepares to unveil a new cabinet Friday, he will be judged by his own post-pandemic promises.
It begins and ends with inflation, a foe that Ford didn’t have to face until the end of his first term. On the campaign trail, he profited from affordability fears with time-limited tax cuts and fee rebates, but that bag of tricks won’t last long.
There is only so much money to go around, and Ford’s Tories are spending it fast and loose, far exceeding the trend line of the last Liberal government.
Now, inflation is set to turbocharge wage disputes with organized labour in the months to come, putting his new-found love affair with some union leaders (mostly in the building trades) under severe strain. Ford will break their hearts or break the bank.
Unionized nurses, for example, are constrained by a pre-inflation wage restraint law limiting them to one per cent increases that don’t add up to a seven per cent solution in today’s economic climate. Teachers are negotiating new contracts to make up for lost time and money.
Labour strife is a perennial flashpoint for any party in power, although not necessarily a fatal one. After all, Education Minister Stephen Lecce increased his margin of victory in his home riding this month, despite the usual taunts and tribulations from his union foes; by contrast, former leaders of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation have twice failed to win election (Harvey Bischof under the NDP banner in 2022, and Ken Coran for the Liberals in 2014).
The inability of OSSTF leaders to translate their union visibility into public winnability, while Ford’s Tories sailed back to power, is a reminder of the difference between perceived self-interest and the public interest. It is a lesson Ford needs to heed in the years ahead.
Yes, the premier is much improved from 2018, when he came out swinging against anyone and everyone, but that is an admittedly low benchmark. After the boos and bumps along the road, Ford changed course at the midpoint.
Confronted with COVID-19, he pivoted to the politics of pandemics — forging links with his federal rivals and rolling up his sleeves. He won out over weak opponents in the June 2 election, but now he must raise his game again.
Crisis management, like managing an election campaign, is not the same as leading a complex government during a time of economic stress. Where people and politicians were inclined to come together during COVID-19, today’s inflationary and recessionary fears will pull people apart.
Ford is not exactly an exemplar of traditional Canadian brokerage politics or an avatar of bridge-building. His public persona may be better than before, but he is hardly Bill Davis reincarnated.
He will inevitably revert to past practice. In fact, he has already given us an early glimpse.
On the day after winning re-election, he lapsed into the old trope of trying to peel away union members from their elected leaders, saying most teachers he met weren’t aligned with their leadership. But if union presidents aren’t representative of their membership, why do they keep getting re-elected?
(Ford would claim they just benefit from low turnouts in union elections, but so does the premier in general elections. And as I keep reminding people, that’s democracy, for better or for worse: if you discount your vote, it’s not counted.)
Ford’s mercurial nature may be more modulated these days, with only occasional lapses on the labour front. But his inherent impulsiveness stands in sharp contrast to the more reflective Davis, who also improved during his years as premier, seeking out contrary opinions, listening to competing stakeholders, and trying to reconcile them in the public interest.
Davis relied heavily on public opinion polling to shape his policies — to the point that he was mocked for being more indecisive than deliberative. Where Davis cancelled the Spadina Expressway in 1971, Ford wants to build the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413 a half-century later in the Greenbelt, yet both hewed to the pathways laid out by their preferred public opinion strategists — Decima’s Allan Gregg for Davis in his day, and Campaign Research’s Nick Kouvalis for Ford today.
But road-building is not bridge-building.
Ford’s glib campaign promise to build new roads into the Ring of Fire in the far north could prove elusive and explosive. Tallying up riches from rare minerals is easier than rallying Indigenous peoples to the cause of road development in sensitive terrain — ecologically and politically — as previous Liberal governments discovered during arduous negotiations.
Opening a road to the Ring of Fire won’t be as simple as unveiling those roadside billboards repurposing his 2018 campaign slogan, “Ontario is Open for Business,” mere months before border closures left Ontario cut off. Back then, Ford badgered business leaders into fixing the supply chain problems, but the Ring of Fire has its own unique chain of custody — for ownership of the land — and Indigenous leaders won’t be bullied.
Four years ago, Ford spent his first few months in power boasting, “Promise made, promise kept,” as he set about undoing much of his predecessor’s handiwork. Now, Ford will have to figure out how to keep so many promises to so many people.
Election 2022 was an easy mandate to win — easier than the last one. But a harder one to deliver on.
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