Skip to main content

Shifting demographics and weak alternatives leave Ford in the lead heading into 2022 election

August 12, 2021.

Published in the Hamilton Spectator August 16, 2021

The death of former Ontario Premier Bill Davis, an individual whose political career was defined by decency, competence, and a progressive conservatism, invites comparisons to the approach of his current successor as Progressive Conservative Party leader and premier, Doug Ford.

Ford’s government has now entered its final year in office prior to the June 2022 election. Ford’s approach to governance has stood in stark contrast to that of Mr.Davis. Many have wondered at its continuing political viability, as recent public opinion polls still place Mr. Ford ahead of his potential rivals.

To his political credit, Ford has managed to hold together his unlikely coalition of the remnants of the traditional rural, central Ontario PC base, and the emergent ‘Ford Nation.’ That constituency is largely grounded among new Canadians in the outer suburbs of the City of Toronto, and the 905 region surrounding the City. And his government has so far survived a series of administrative and governance failures that would have almost certainly doomed any of his predecessors in the premier’s office.

The Ford government’s handling of the COVID crisis, particularly the second and third waves, stands out as its most spectacular failure, with more than 9400 deaths, including 3800 in long-term care facilities. The government’s responses were widely seen as hesitant, contradictory, and far too responsive to the pleadings of business interests at the expense of public health and scientific advice.

To add insult to injury, the government adopted legislation shielding long-term care facilities from lawsuits from the families of the victims who died in their care. It then refused to call a formal public inquiry into the deaths, opting instead for an informal ‘commission.’ Under that process, those who had been in management and policy-making positions in relation to the long-term care system did not have to testify or be cross-examined in an open forum on the public record.

The former Minister of Long-Term Care refused to accept responsibly for the catastrophic failures that occurred on her watch. Then, in a bizarre moment that would have never happened during Mr. Davis’ tenure - when the principle of ministerial responsibility actually meant something, the minister blamed the Leader of the Opposition for the disaster. Moreover, the government is now entertaining funding requests from many of the very same for-profit facilities at which many residents died. This is despite the recommendation from its own commission that for-profit operations be pushed out of the sector.

The government’s behaviour regarding the COVID situation was emblematic of what has emerged as its overall approach to governance. On the environment, land-use planning, long-term care, and a range of other issues the government’s decision-making has been a function of those who have had access and connections, rather than evidence, rules, and public input. What has emerged is a style of governance reminiscent of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a model that turns its back on the modernization of the province’s governance and administrative structures that occurred under the tenures of premiers Frost, Robarts and Davis and their Liberal and NDP successors.

The Ford government’s approach has produced a remarkable litany of losers – long-term care residents and their families, students at all levels of the education system and their families, left in varying states of confusion, tenants facing accelerated evictions, community groups fighting wildly inappropriate development proposals, municipal governments, and conservation authorities whose authority and governance structures have been undermined, renewable energy developers, and a host of others.

The government’s policy approaches in key areas like energy, electricity, and climate change seem nothing but confusion.  The overall list of winners – well-connected developers, for-profit long-term care home operators, incumbents in the energy sector, particularly nuclear and natural gas operators, and the aggregate (gravel pits and quarries) and mining industries seems, in contrast, remarkably short.

Many long-term observers of Ontario politics have been surprised at the province’s apparent tolerance for these sorts of failings. Basic administrative competence and moderation had long been seen as core elements of the province’s political culture – a legacy of the time of Premiers Frost, Robarts and Davis – and one which seemed to be confirmed by the early successes of the McGuinty and Wynne governments.

That re-election remains a viable possibility for the Ford government in these circumstances may signal a shift in province’s politics, resulting of changing demographics and economic structures. It is also possible that the Ford government’s greatest strength is the weakness of the available alternatives.

The NDP holds the status of official opposition, but that seems best it can hope for with current leadership. The inability to defeat the deeply unpopular Liberals under Kathleen Wynne or a failed Toronto-mayoralty candidate with a hastily drafted platform of little more than slogans in the 2018 election should have signalled the need for a change in leadership. The public seems to appreciate Andrea Horwath’s work as a lead critic of the Ford government but does not see her as a potential premier.

Liberal leader Steven Del Duca’s experience, competence and decency should position him as the potential anti-Ford, a Joe Biden to Ford’s Trumpian populism, and successor in the tradition of Bill Davis. But with no seat in the Legislature, he seems unable to shake his status as the invisible man of Ontario politics.

Green leader Mike Schreiner has continued to quietly shine, punching well above the weight of his one-member caucus, on a range of issues beyond his party’s obvious strengths on the environment and climate change. The Ontario Greens seem so far unaffected by the internal meltdown within the federal party. That leaves Schreiner as another potential anti-Ford. Although showing solidly between six and nine per cent support in recent public opinion polls, his party would seem to have little chance of forming a government after next year’s election. But a situation where the Green’s emerge with a handful of seats and hold the balance of power in a minority government situation is far from inconceivable. That kind of scenario played out in BC in 2017 and New Brunswick in 2018.

The 2022 election will be the most determinative for Ontario politics in a generation. It will set the province's direction on virtually every issue facing the province; climate change; energy, the reform of the long-term care sector; education; urban sprawl and development; housing; and the environment. The province faces serious challenges on all of these fronts, and Ontarians need to see serious alternatives to the paths they have been offered so far between now and next June.