Doug Ford’s election teaches us that provincial politics matter too

Update from Ontario: we are on fire

Photo courtesy of Getty/Carlos Osorio

Written by: Gabrielle McLaren

*This article has been changed from the print version to more accurately reflect the intent of the writer. 

Every summer, a Canadian province bursts into flames. Last year, it was literal forest fires in B.C. This summer, Ontario’s politics are moonlighting as an actual garbage-fire. This hyperbole may not be completely serious, but the lessons and consequences from June 9’s election are absolutely so.

Meet the winners: Doug Ford and the Ontarian Conservative Party (PC)

Ford became PC leader in March, with no previous political experience aside from some experience with Toronto’s city council. He’s the brother of the late Rob Ford, former Toronto Mayor. Where his brother was caught smoking crack cocaine in his office, Doug Ford has a history of dealing drugs in Toronto’s wealthy suburbs.

     If you think that picking a new leader four months before the election seems rushed, you’re right — but former PC leader Patrick Brown resigned from his position amid sexual misconduct allegations, and abandoned his second attempt at the leadership race once Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner started looking into his personal finances.

     Ford’s rise from city counsellor to provincial premier seems haphazard. Especially disproportionate is the fact that Ford didn’t win the popular vote in his party’s crazy leadership race, but brought them to an overwhelming majority with 76 of the province’s 124 seats. How did this happen? Party politics, my friends.

     Put simply, party politics are a form of politics where support relies more heavily on the party in question than on its particular decisions or policies. You may always vote for Party X regardless of its new policies, just because it’s Party X and you always vote X. You might disregard Candidate Y in your riding even if they are the most competent or experienced, simply because they are a member of Party Y that you traditionally dislike. While party affiliations themselves aren’t bad, party politics can lead voters to become uncritical.

A quick look at Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath

The Liberals had been in power in Ontario for over a decade, most recently under leader Kathleen Wynne. Their loss was no surprise, not even to Wynne, but the severity of the blow definitely was. The Liberals experienced their biggest losses since 1943 (a loss of 48 seats), leaving them one seat short from the eight seats needed to remain an official party.

     Wynne’s approval ratings dipped to 12% (34% within her own party) despite Ontarians being generally satisfied with her policies. Ontarians were just over her place as party leader despite her qualifications, and threw their hypothetical Liberal baby out with the bathwater. While Wynne has definitely made some unpopular and hard decisions and earned some Ontarians’ distaste, sexism and homophobia may have had a part to play in her demonization.

     If party politics weren’t apparent enough, it’s worth noting that the Liberal and NDP platforms were ultimately quite similar. The NDP, under Andrea Horwath’s leadership, won 40 seats. Her party also became the Official Opposition, and performed better than it had since 1990.

     The rise of party politics has vast implications. For one thing, it encourages strategic voting, as opposed to encouraging candidates to vote for the candidate best suited for their particular riding and its needs. This election, long-time Liberal Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) have been unseated, like Jim Bradley, who won’t be in Queen’s Park for the first time in 41 years. When individuals and parties get confused, it means that candidates and leaders can get away with a lot more, protected by their banners. Example: the PC failed to release a full, costed platform before election day.

     A special shout-out goes to Mike Schreiner: not only is he the first Green Party Candidate ever to be elected provincially or federally in Ontario (Guelph), but he led the polls by 24%.


Electoral turnout was just plain sad

A measly 58% of Ontarians went to the polls in 2018, the Windsor-West riding boasting the lowest at 43.83% turnout. That’s about two out of five people voting. It’s 8% lower than the turnout for the 2015 federal elections (used to calculate the national average), which wasn’t so hot either, and 3% lower than B.C.’s 2017 turnout.

     According to Elections Canada, in 2015: “. . . the most common reason reported for not voting was not being interested in politics (31.8%), followed by being too busy (23.5%) … Other frequently mentioned reasons were an illness or disability (12.5%) and being out of town (11.9%).” Age and education are also commonly understood factors in low turnout. In 2014, only 34% of 18-24 year-old Ontarians voted — which was higher than the 24% in the 2011 elections— but historically, voter turnout for the elected party has always been higher when the PC came to power.

     Put simply: we care about this because a high turnout means that more voices are factored into the government’s composition, and our generation tends to slack. In Ontario, three ridings’ results were decided by less than 100 votes. That’s absolutely wild. The lesson here: numbers do show the power of a single vote. I have absolutely zero pity for the Ontarians who didn’t vote this election, and don’t want to hear any of them complain for the next four years.

Fuel to the fire: Questioning the first past the post system

A relic of the British politics from which Canada emerged, the first-past-the-post system has been seriously questioned. First-past-the-post means that small pieces of each province, ridings, each elect one MPP.  Most MPPs represent a party, and the leader of whichever party wins the most seats become Premier. Fair Vote Canada (an organization against first-past-the-post) calls Doug Ford’s victory a “false majority,” and even compare his election to Donald Trump’s rise.

     The numbers are jarring: Doug Ford’s government will have 76 seats after earning 40.49% of the vote while the NDP (the Official Opposition) will have 40 seats after winning 33.57% of the vote. The two parties are only separated by 396 848 votes, but seem worlds apart.

     B.C. will be holding a referendum this fall on the subject of electoral reform, possibly transitioning away from the first-past-the-post system. Broken promises regarding electoral reform are among the biggest catalysts for complaints about Trudeau’s government. The upcoming Ford government will add fuel to that fire. This may be of particular importance in Ontario, where federal and provincial ridings are the same, as far as Trudeau’s hopes for a 2019 re-election are concerned.

With Donald Trump’s horcrux comes populism’s Canadian debut

A history professor once mentioned that comparisons between politicians — especially extremists (she used Trump and Hitler as examples) — are not particularly helpful or productive. She recommended comparing situations and contexts.

      Here’s something that can be said for Ford’s election: for one thing, he did not ride on anti-immigration waves. But he did lie wildly.

     For example, while discussing each political party’s finances, he told journalists that: “We’re the only ones with the proven track record, that did what we said we were going to do, which was save the taxpayers money…” The track record from Ford’s time in Toronto’s City Hall is not as promising: most of this extra money came from the elimination of 1,268 full-time and 271 part-time jobs (despite his claims that “not a single person got laid off”) and he lost Torontonians 200 million dollars in revenue by eliminating the Personal Vehicle Tax.

     Now that he’s on the provincial stage, though he’s the first to complain about Ontario’s debt, his spending plan will add $10 billion to the already existing $11 billion deficit. To quote The Globe and Mail:

“With Mr. Ford, it’s populism with all its worst characteristics and few of its better ones: sloganeering, simplistic nonsense for policy, appeals to base instincts, and the belief that government is the problem, even the enemy of the people’s interests . . . It was only a matter of time before a reaction – or revolt – against ‘identity politics’ arrived in Canada, since it had already manifested itself in other Western democracies. It hit first in this Ontario election; it will hit elsewhere . . .”

     Gaps in voters between multiethnic urban regions and rural ridings are becoming more and more common in provincial politics, which makes Ford and potential copycats a matter of when, not if.

     One of my worries for Ford in particular is actually his Twitter handle: @fordnation. “Ford Nation” was a slogan under which Ford campaigned. With our Premier-designate so well branded to represent his supporters, I’m anxious to see how he’ll transition to represent all Ontarians, including the 59.51% who didn’t vote for him.

Consequences on the horizon

Ford has shown little interest in listening to racialized communities. He has promised to reinstate TAVIS, which one activist called “a racist police division,” and skipped a debate organised by Toronto’s Black community. Indigenous Ontarians are also skeptical.

     Ford will attack legislature that protects women, especially their rights to safe, secure, unharassed abortion . . . Ford has a choppy history with women, calling them shrews, little bitches, mentally unstable, and dismissing other PC leadership candidates by comparing them to “his wives and daughters.”

     Ford has a history of dodging journalists. On the campaign trail, he hired his own private journalist to cover his activity.

     Ford has neglected the province’s Franco-Ontarian minority. The French version of the PC’s official website vanished. Ford was the only party leader not to use French in his victory speech (Wynne’s was bilingual and Horwath gave us a ‘merci beaucoup’). When asked if he would learn French by Radio-Canada (AKA French CBC), Ford answered that he would love to — because that way, he could communicate with Québécers. Unfortunately, they do not make up his voting base.

     The future for Ontario, with Doug Ford at the helm, is uncertain. Keep an eye on the province, but keep its strange politics in mind as the Ford government unfolds.