Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Ontario Paradox

The post below was published as part of a longer article in Inroads: The Canadian Journal of Opinion in their new issue released this week. In it several contributors assess prospects in their regions for the forthcoming federal election.

However, I actually finished writing it on April 29 prior to the publication of three polls (by Pollara, Ipsos and Mainstreet) that report a significant drop in public support for the Ford government.  An analysis prepared by Eric Grenier of CBC on May 29 suggests Ford is costing the federal Conservatives significant support. What I suspect will be the case come autumn is that it will likely be the difference in determining the winner, and so far my assessment is that it has cost the federal Conservatives relatively little. I think Doug Ford's political problems are just getting started. The cost to Andrew Scheer is likely to get worse.

An updated version of this has now been published by Rabble. 


Trying to establish Ontario’s place in the federation’s politics presents a paradox. Critically important, Ontario cast thirty-seven percent of all votes in 2015, contributing 80 of the Liberals’ 184 constituencies. However, having elected a small ‘l’ liberal prime minister that year, the same province proceeded less than three years later to select the conservative Doug Ford as premier. Justin Trudeau introduces a carbon tax while Ford leads a charge against it, going so far as to enact legislation to require stickers on gas pumps denouncing the tax. Trying to get a fix on Ontario’s prevailing ideological winds is no easy task.

Ontario was governed by a progressive version of conservatism in the sixties and seventies when premiers such as John Robarts and Bill Davis, quite compatible with the era of Trudeau the elder, held office. 

Take education as an example. The PCs invested prodigious resources in all levels of education, particularly post-secondary. It would pay off economically.  Toronto’s current prosperity is directly connected to those investments.  As a producer with CBC’s Journal in 1985, I made a short documentary profile of a small high-tech firm in Toronto that had just sold its new design system for cars to GM. Why in Toronto? CEO Stephen Bingham said that the staff’s advanced technical skills were attributable to investments by Bill Davis in places like the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo and Sheridan College. 

However, a new hard-edged conservatism took over in the Mike Harris years of the nineties, enthusiastic about cutting education spending, prioritizing tax cuts. However, deep cuts to postsecondary were offset to some degree by tuition increases and private sector support particularly for elite universities such as Toronto and Waterloo. Those years featured strong economic growth imported from a boom south of the border (dubbed by economist Joseph Stiglitz the “roaring nineties”) and aided by a continuously declining Canadian dollar that fell from the moment the PCs took office from about 72 cents U.S. to 62.5 cents in January 2002. Conservatives mistakenly liked to think the growth was about them and Harris’ Common Sense Revolution. 

The Dalton McGuinty Liberals would reverse the anti-education policies of Harris, earning kudos along the way from the OECD for its reforms. But taxes did not rise much, marking a key political and ideological success for the Conservatives. Spending remained low in part by postponing significantly outlays for public services such as chronic care. When Doug Ford became premier succeeding the seemingly progressive Kathleen Wynne (cap and trade, research on guaranteed basic income, changes to the sex education curriculum), Ontario had the lowest per capita program spending of any province despite the left of centre image cultivated by Wynne, and low overall revenues per person, a tribute to the tax-cutting fervor of the Harris years. Nevertheless, Canada’s largely conservative print media has misleadingly portrayed Ontario as a high spending debt-ridden basket case. As noted, spending and taxes remain low, the latter a key contributor to debt, itself primarily a product of the financial downturn following the last recession. Even per capita debt, compared to other provinces, is relatively high but not the largest in Canada.  

It is not always true that, as has often been said, Ontarians choose one party for Queen’s Park and send another to power in Ottawa, but it is true that federal-provincial political dynamics matter. A deeply unpopular provincial regime can harm the prospects of its federal counterpart, a clear and present danger for Andrew Scheer as evidence accumulates that some of Ford’s actions - unpopular cuts to treatment of autistic children, increasing high school class sizes, slashing public health spending, rollbacks to local flood fighting capacity and libraries, are taking a toll on Ford’s popularity. 

As if contrasting ideologies were not enough, we find that many of the senior personnel serving Trudeau - such as Gerald Butts and Katie Telford - were imported from Queen’s Park political circles, while Ford has surrounded himself with former Harper staffers such as Jenni Byrne who served for a time as his principal secretary.

One key to the paradox perhaps is that Ontario, with a population of fifteen million, is too large to have a single political culture. In the centre is Toronto – Liberal stronghold, political home to key Trudeau ministers such as Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.  Toronto’s suburbs, better known by area code 905, harbour considerable Conservative strength. The ambiguity of Ontario’s outlook seems rooted here: mostly PC in the 2018 provincial election but heavily Liberal in 2015. The region is the political home of Jane Philpott of SNC-Lavalin scandal fame. However, scandals past have generated headlines but had little impact on votes.

Meanwhile the southwest, including London and Windsor, with the exception of tech centre Kitchener-Waterloo, experienced post-recession some of the manufacturing stagnation characteristic of neighbouring American states and this bred discontent, although even here recovery has taken hold. There is longer term stagnation in the north, also home to a large indigenous population, politically a relative stronghold for the NDP. Eastern Ontario is a rural sea of small ‘c’ conservatism, except for Kingston, and metropolitan Ottawa.

Trudeau the elder won three majorities, in the elections of 1968, 1974 and 1980, but in between he had a near miss in 1972, winning one more seat than the Tories (but continued to govern propped up by the NDP) and a minority loss to Joe Clark in 1979, overturned in 1980. A key difference between the Liberal majorities and their poor results in 1972 and 1979 was fickle Ontario, charmed by the Trudeau mystique in 1968 and 1974, with deep disappointment producing the minorities of ’72 and ‘79. Having been weakened by scandal, history may repeat itself for Trudeau the younger in 2019. A potential key difference: Ontario’s provincial politics played no role in the elections of the seventies; that is not likely to be true this year.