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A year of Doug Ford: Retreating on cuts or just taking a break?

June 2, 2019. Published in The Conversation

It’s been a bad few weeks for Ontario Premier Doug Ford as he approaches the first anniversary of his election last June. First at the opening of the Special Olympics, and then at a high-profile tech conference in Toronto, he was greeted with choruses of boos.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, with the strong support of his entire city council (with the sole exception of for the premier’s nephew, Coun. Michael Ford) had launched a public campaign specifically targeting the 11 Conservative members of provincial parliament from the City of Toronto over the Ontario government’s budget-cutting and restructuring initiatives. Mayors in the rural central Ontario Conservative heartland were also beginning to question the government’s direction.

A year ago, Ford’s arrival as Ontario’s premier was seen as a harbinger of a populist realignment in Ontario and Canadian politics. Now polls suggest Ford has personal approval ratings well below former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s in the run-up to the 2018 election.

The leaderless Liberals, who lack party status in the legislature, as well as the NDP, are out-polling Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. Polls suggest the Liberal party, if led by Toronto Mayor John Tory, would defeat Ford by a wide margin.

The Ford government’s recent step back on retroactive budget cuts to municipalities perhaps comes as no surprise in this context. The larger question is whether it constitutes a tactical retreat or a more serious change in direction by the populist premier.

Ford was elected on a remarkably thin platform, principally promising cuts in taxes and hydro rates. These were to be paid for by finding “efficiencies” in government operations, as opposed to actually laying off teachers, nurses and other front-line staff, or by cutting services.

What emerged was a very different reality. The breadth of the budget cuts made by the Ford government have been so broad and so deep it is difficult to identify any specific targets or strategies: public health; legal aid; renewable energy; energy efficiency; climate change mitigation and adaptation; social assistance; Ontario Disability Support Program eligibility; children’s aid; day care; midwives; secondary and post-secondary education; health care, particularly complex out-of-hospital care; medical research; flood protection; tourism promotion; and gasoline tax transfers for municipalities have all been hit.

The Children and Youth Advocate’s office and the office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario have been eliminated as independent entities. Think tanks like the Mowat Centre and the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity — aimed at mapping out the province’s future — have been terminated.

Although “open for business” is one of the government’s favourite slogans, the most recent cuts flowing from Ford’s first budget have hit sectors seen as essential to the province’s economic future, particularly information technology. There have been major reductions in provincial contributions to the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, along with cuts to the innovation-focused Centres of Excellence, and training, mentoring and start-up support for small businesses.

The outcome of the Ford government’s first year has been described by some as a war on the future, as well as a war on the province’s most vulnerable residents.

The government justified its actions on the basis of an unexpectedly large budget deficit left by the Liberals. Yet the government has itself shredded major revenue sources, most notably, up to $2 billion a year from the cancelled greenhouse gas emission cap-and-trade system. It also curtailed planned tax increases for high-income earners.

The government has moved to clarify the true costs of the Liberal Fair Hydro Plan’s 25 per cent reduction of hydro rates, and to modify the financing arrangements for the plan. But the core of the plan, and its costs to the provincial treasury of as much as $3 billion a year, remain intact. At the same time, the government seems prepared to risk hundreds of millions of dollars in contract penalties and lawsuits to get beer and wine into corner stores.

If that wasn’t enough, the government has embarked on a series of conflicts with other levels of government. It’s in a high-profile legal and political dispute with the federal government over carbon pricing. At the same time, it’s waged a series of battles with the province’s municipalities.

The City of Toronto has borne the brunt of these attacks, including a decision to cut the size of the city’s council by half in the midst of last fall’s municipal election campaign, and a takeover of the TTC subway system. The cuts to public health funding, reductions in expected gasoline tax transfers, changes to the land-use planning rules in favour of developers and unilateral changes in governance structures affected municipalities across the province as well.

A year in, the Ford government has demonstrated a remarkable talent for disruption and destruction. But it has very little to show in terms of constructive progress. The government talked about “protecting the things that matter most” but its cutting-across-the-board behaviour suggests that it didn’t have any sense of what those things might actually be.

The year has produced strikingly few winners under the Ford regime: developers; the nuclear industry; large industrial polluters presented with ever-more “flexible” rules; resource extraction companies that will be permitted to “pay to slay” species at risk; and most recently, hunters — beneficiaries of a Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry program that gives ball caps for animal hides at a cost of $100,000 — the same amount, it has been pointed out, as the province cut from stem cell research.

Where the Ford government goes from here is an open question. The short-term pull-back on cuts to transfers to municipalities is a relatively minor adjustment to the government’s long-term plans laid out in its budget. The government’s core restructuring and budget strategies remain in place.

Ontario residents are only beginning to feel the impacts of those measures, but their patience with the premier’s populist appeal has already worn thin. A deeper change in direction than Ford’s recent temporary budgetary reprieve will be needed to rescue the government’s political fortunes.