Skip to main content

Rumours of an early election call invite reflections on Ford government’s record in Ontario.

May 30, 3024

The past week in Ontario politics has been alive with rumours of an early election call by the Ford government this summer. Conventional wisdom would be that this would be an Inherently high-risk strategy, especially only 2 years into a June 2022 majority mandate which ultimately rested on the votes of less than 18 per cent of eligible Ontario voters. Even David Peterson waited three years before making an early call, and then was met with a disastrous result.

A number of potential rationales for an early election call are being offered: getting ahead of further fallout from the Greenbelt land removal scandal flowing from Freedom of Information requests and the RCMP investigation;  a potential change in government at the federal level, with a new Conservative administration being potentially less unquestionably willing to facilitate and finance the Ford’s government’s grandiose nuclear energy, highway and transit megaprojects; and the wider potential for the fallout from a variety of earlier decisions to come home to roost, ranging from the emerging financial crisis in the post-secondary education sector, to ongoing wider crises in healthcare, education and affordable (especially rental) housing.  There is also the possibility of an attempt to pre-empt the ability of new leader of the Ontario Liberal Party to raise funds, and establish a presence and build 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 been explained in terms of the appeal of Ford’s ‘market-populist’ responses to the impacts of Ontario’s transition from an industrial to service-based economy, with an increasingly polarized labour market in terms of geography, income and employment security. Ford’s discourse weathered the challenges of COVID-19 due to the incorporation of more activist elements (‘get it done’) and the failure of electoral alternatives to provide a vision of Ontario’s economic future that moves beyond the managerial framings that the Ford government displaced in 2018.

Key points of vulnerability

Unseating the Ford government will require providing an alternative basis for addressing the labour market polarization and economic geographic divisions in Ontario. Such an appeal would need to move beyond both neoliberal and populist assumptions that underpin Doug Ford’s political success.

In this context, the environment and climate change remain key points of vulnerability for the Ford government, particularly because they speak to its reactive governance style and lack of forward vision. A bad fire season over the coming summer could further highlight the province’s lack of any credible climate plan in terms of reducing GHG emissions or responding to the impacts of a changing climate. The province’s record of emission reductions from the 2003-2013 coal-phase-out and industrial restructuring are now largely played out. Emissions are now rising, especially from the electricity sector with a dramatic growth in the role of natural gas-fired generation, and buildings and transportation. There, instead of providing any meaningful decarbonization strategies the government is focused on expanding access to fossil natural gas grid and building new highways.

Further, the recent successful mobilization of organized labour against the Ford government’s proposed use of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’s notwithstanding clause to impose a contract upon education workers, and the broad civil society and institutional response resulting in the reversal of the fall 2022 removal of lands from the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt, both point to the growing potential for significant further social and political mobilization against the government.

The question of who actually wins under Ford’s form of market populism must also loom large for electoral actors hoping to unseat the Ford government—“the people” or certain well-connected interests such as developers, resource industries, and incumbents in the energy and for-profit health care sec­tors, a point highlighted by the Greenbelt episode in particular?

Behind this there must also be growing questions about the government’s fiscal responsibility. The emerging costs of beer accelerating the availability of beer and wine in corner stores is only most recent development to raise questions about the government’s approach to fiscal matters. The government has committed to at least $150 billion in large energy and transportation infrastructure projects.  Many of the projects at the centre of the government’s efforts, including Highway 413, the Highway 404-to-400 Bradford Bypass, and the Pickering B nuclear station refurbishment projects, had been subject to previous reviews either under the Environmental Assessment and other planning processes and determined to be unnecessary and uneconomic.

Despite having centuries-long implications for the province’s energy systems, urban development and transportation patterns, environmental and climate sustainability; and, particularly in the context of increased interest rates, long-term fiscal capacity,  none have been subject to any current meaningful external review or assessment, despite widespread suspicions around their political motivations.

The emerging financial impacts of the government’s decision around been and wine availability adds to the government’s pattern of casually shredding long-term stable revenue streams. Since 2018 these have included the loss of approximately $1billion/yr each from: the cancellation of the greenhouse gas cap and trade program; the elimination of vehicle licencing fees; and reductions in the provincial gasoline tax. To this has to be added the billions in provincial revenues that have had to be diverted to municipalities to pay for infrastructure, to make up for the development charge revenues that were lost through Bill 23. There is also the ongoing $7 billion/yr diversion of revenues away from pressing needs in areas like health care and education, to artificially lower hydro rates, largely 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 remains an open question.