Ford's 'populism' means waging war on Ontario's most marginalized

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Premier Doug Ford, alongside Minister of Energy, Greg Rickford. Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

As I chug my eighth beer, savouring the thought that I have paid only a buck for each one, I realize I've reached the high point of Ontario's new populist nirvana.

It won't get any better than this, since this is the extent of Doug Ford's populism.

While the word "populist" is bandied about to describe plain-talkin', right-wing politicians, that description tarnishes the reputation of real 19th-century populists in the U.S. (and Canada) who actually championed the interests of ordinary folk over the wealthy elite. Pressure from populist ranks helped put in place the U.S. income tax in 1913, as a way to tax the rich.

Doug Ford is no more a populist than my grandmother was a stage-coach. Like Donald Trump, Ford got his start by inheriting wealth, and his policies favour the rich, not the poor.

We've just come through several decades where politicians talked a lot (while doing little) about rising inequality. Now, in Ontario, we're back to a full-frontal embrace of inequality.

The new premier has already signalled he's gearing up to revive the nasty class war against the poor waged by former Conservative premier Mike Harris.

What makes this revival particularly insidious is that Ford didn't campaign on it; he refused to reveal where he'd wield the knife to produce $6 billion in spending cuts, and specifically denied he would end the Basic Income Pilot Project.

But one of his first acts was to cut off that pilot project, ignoring promises of extra income that had been made to 4,000 poor people, many of whom went back to school excited by the dream of improving their difficult lives.

Another clear signal of the Ford government's class-war intentions was its decision last month to cut in half the scheduled increase in benefits for social assistance recipients, including those with disabilities.

Given the substantial size of this welfare-collecting crowd, almost a million people, one might expect them to wield considerable political power. But, in fact, they wield almost none. In the halls of Queen's Park, this million-strong army, struggling on the margins of society, is essentially voiceless and invisible.

Their powerlessness is illustrated by the fact that, after Mike Harris slashed their benefits by a whopping 21.6 per cent in 1995, they never managed to recover. Twenty-three years later, their benefits are actually slightly lower today, having been whittled away further through inflation.

Just before the June election, the Liberals pledged to increase those welfare benefits by three per cent, which would have raised them roughly to the level where Harris had left them.

But Ford quickly jumped in, quashing any budding hopes among the deprived that there might be a tiny bit of progress -- for the first time in 23 years! Instead, the Ford government cut the planned increase from three to 1.5 per cent, thereby snatching $150 million from the poorest citizens in the province -- and then having the impudence to call its action "compassionate."

This is likely just a foretaste of the assault on the poor that's coming. The Ford administration is conducting a 100-day review of social assistance, which will probably lead, among other things, to a clampdown on welfare fraud, even though the province could collect far more revenue by clamping down on the tax fraud routinely committed by lawyers and businesspeople deducting sports tickets as "business entertainment."

But then, unlike the muffled voices of welfare recipients, the voices of lawyers and businesspeople bellow directly into the premier's ear.

The coming welfare clampdown isn't just motivated by mean-spiritedness; it's aimed at accomplishing a key right-wing goal: prodding the poor into accepting precarious work.

By making the poor more desperate, the clampdown will oblige them to accept the grungiest, most exploitative, lowest-paying jobs, notes John Clarke, organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

And since Ford has also indicated his intention to cancel the scheduled rise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, this increased desperation will come in handy, at least for the province's employers, who seem keen about the new government.

So Ford's revved-up war against the poor could perhaps be described as politically cunning. One thing it could never be described as is populist.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Mythswas among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

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