Fickle Ontario could be key to the federal election

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Premier Doug Ford. Photo: Ford Nation/Facebook

Trying to establish Ontario's place in the Canadian federation's politics presents a paradox.

Critically important, Ontario cast 37 per cent 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 '60s and '70s, 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 of that era 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 The 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 Progressive Conservative Mike Harris' years of the '90s, enthusiastic about cutting education spending, prioritizing tax cuts. 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 liked to think the growth was about them and Harris' "Common Sense Revolution." It was not.

The Dalton McGuinty Liberals would reverse the anti-education policies of Harris. Along the way they earned kudos from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for their reforms.

But under McGuinty, taxes did not rise much, marking a key political and ideological success for the Harris Conservatives. Spending remained low in part by significantly postponing outlays for public services such as chronic care.

Mainstream media misleadingly portray Ontario's debt and spending

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. This was despite the left-of-centre image cultivated by Wynne. Ontario's government had (and still has) low overall revenues per person, a tribute to the tax-cutting fervour of the Harris years. Many spending pressures such as daycare remain unmet.

Canada's largely conservative print media has misleadingly portrayed Ontario as a high spending, debt-ridden basket case. The truth is that spending and taxes remain low, the latter being a key contributor to debt, itself primarily a product of the financial downturn following the last recession. While, per capita, Ontario's debt is higher than that of most other provinces, it is not the largest in Canada and there is no crisis.  

It is not always true that, as pundits and journalists often say, Ontarians like to choose one party for Queen's Park and send another to power in Ottawa (the historical record is largely coincidence). 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. Evidence accumulates that some of Doug 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 to libraries -- are taking a deep toll on Ford's popularity.

Polling (by PollaraIpsosMainstreet and Corbett Communications) report a significant drop in public support for the Ford government.

A recent analysis prepared by Eric Grenier of CBC suggests Ford is beginning to cost the federal Conservatives significant support. I suspect that, come autumn, it will likely determine the winner of the federal election, simply because Ontario is so big.

To date, my assessment is that Ford's woes have cost Scheer's federal Conservatives relatively little. However, I think Doug Ford's political problems are just getting started. The cost to Andrew Scheer is likely to get worse.

And there is another federal-provincial dynamic at work in Ontario. Just as many of Justin Trudeau's senior personnel -- such as Gerald Butts and Katie Telford -- were imported from Queen's Park political circles, Ford has surrounded himself with former Harper government staffers. Jenni Byrne, who was, for a time, Ford's principal secretary and is now a member of the Ontario Energy Board, was also Stephen Harper's principal secretary.

Politics defined by regions

One key to the paradox of Ontario is that, with a population of 15 million, it 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 its 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, who now plans to run there as an independent (with almost no hope of success). As for the SNC-Lavalin affair it is unclear what impact it might have: 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. That bred discontent, although even in that region recovery has taken hold.

There is longer term stagnation in Ontario's north, also home to a large Indigenous population. Politically, the north is a relative stronghold for the NDP.

Eastern Ontario is a rural sea of small "c" conservatism, except for Kingston, and metropolitan Ottawa.

Justin Trudeau's father, Pierre Trudeau, won three majorities, in the elections of 1968, 1974 and 1980. In between, he had a near miss in 1972, winning one more seat than Robert Stanfield's Tories (but continued to govern, propped up by the NDP), and, in 1979, suffered a loss to Joe Clark who led a short-lived minority government, which Pierre Trudeau handily defeated early in 1980.

A key difference between the Pierre Trudeau Liberal majorities and their poor results in 1972 and 1979 was fickle Ontario. Canada's largest province was charmed by the Trudeau mystique in 1968 and 1974, but deeply disappointed in '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 '70s; by all appearances that is not going to be true this year.

Paul Barber is a political analyst and journalist living in Toronto. He has worked for CBC television (notably the now defunct daily program The Journal) and as a policy expert for the Ontario government. Barber currently blogs at tcnorris.

This story is a revised and updated version of an article originally published as part of a longer piece in the print magazine Inroads: The Canadian Journal of Opinion. In it several contributors assess prospects in their regions for the forthcoming federal election. The story is also available online at: tcnorris.

Photo: Doug Ford/Facebook

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