The Force that is Populism, Northern Style

The Force that is Populism, Northern Style
Published: Jun 09, 2018
As further waves of the political phenomenon called populism drench the US and parts of Europe, another proud exponent in so-called 'socialist' Canada drinks election glory. What's worth knowing about this one is how someone we thought was from the goof tribe played against type to win a majority with a disciplined and savvy campaign. "Doug Ford's lathered critics," writes James Cullingham, "might do well to observe the character that emerged." Keep your enemies closer . . .

"Not just another strong man on an ego trip . . ." [o].

Ontario, wake up and sniff the kitty litter! Doug Ford, AKA ‘DoFo’, is Premier-Designate of Canada’s most populous province. That will make DoFo arguably the second most powerful politician in the country, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There can be no denying the political accomplishment and screaming yelp for change this proclaims.

Doug Ford — elder brother of the late drug-addled, scandal-ridden and infamously world-renowned Toronto mayor, Rob Ford — took Ontario in a resounding way and will lead a majority Progressive Conservative (the name of the conservative party in Ontario) government. He obliterated 15 years of Liberal rule in the province and left the New Democratic Party (NDP) — which will become the official opposition in his wake — as he racked up a significant majority. In the end, it was a Progressive Conservative landslide.

How did we get here? After disgraced Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown resigned due to accusations of sexual misconduct, DoFo soundly defeated credible opponents, both who were female, for the party leadership, then skillfully recruited them to work effectively at his side in the provincial election. Ford survived a mid-campaign dip in the polls and sensational late breaking news of a law suit brought against him by his brother’s widow. None of that mattered. Somehow DoFo tapped the secret sauce of Ontario political success.

As a campaigner he exhibited some of the same tendencies that many Canadians decry when they see evidence of the same in America. 

WTF? To provide some context, here are a few observations.

To begin for international readers, yes Doug Ford is a proud exponent of the so called populism that has gained traction in countries like Austria, Italy, Hungary and the US. Ford’s brand comes with some of the usual contradictions — for example like Donald Trump he is the scion of a wealthy family. But Ford says he’s a man of the people who will govern for all the people.

Few things unite Canadians more than a tendency to affect moral superiority over Americans. Here are three examples: Canada considered as a peacekeeper, unlike its bellicose neighbour, despite having largely abandoned the pursuit for decades; Canada seen as a greener kind of place, despite a Trudeau government dedicated to completing two pipelines carrying bitumen to tidewater; and, above all, Canada seen as home to a gentler, more sensible form of politics than that practiced by those darn Yankees led by an ogre known as Trump. (Canadians of progressive leanings generally refer to the occupant of the White House by his last name alone, spoken as if an epithet.)

But . . . welcome to political reality in Ontario in 2018. DoFo openly admires Donald Trump, and like Trump, rode a wave of conservative populism to power. As a campaigner he exhibited some of the same tendencies that many Canadians decry when they see evidence of the same in America. Doug Ford, like his late brother, is a big man physically, with propensities to goad so-called elites and to bait journalists. Many Canadians would like to pretend such discourse could only succeed in the US of A. Glass houses . . .

Doug Ford and Rob Ford in 2013 when the first allegations of drug use were made. [o]

However, one must note shades of political character that emerged in DoFo’s back-to-back winning campaigns in the leadership contest and recent election. Doug Ford's lathered critics might do well to observe the character that emerged, particularly that he stayed on message with extreme discipline. In the election debates, he refused to be baited by his principal opponents, outgoing Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne and social democrat leader Andrea Horwath of the New Democratic Party. DoFo the community college dropout cum businessman turned politician is hardly eloquent, yet he was succinct, calm and sometimes explicitly gracious to his opponents. To send a signal that he was not just another strong man on an ego trip, DoFo kept his vanquished female opponents from the leadership race, Christine Elliot and Caroline Mulroney, around for regular photo ops throughout the campaign. And, he showed political resoluteness when he ruthlessly axed the electoral campaign of social conservative leadership rival Tanya Granic Allen after she was exposed, in old social media posts, spewing anger about gay marriage, veiled women and liberal Croatian sex education campaigns. In sum, as provincial election campaigner, Ford often presented a sharp contrast from the once publicly belligerent right-hand man and defender-in-chief of his embattled late brother.

The question now is which DoFo emerges as premier? The social conservative who pledges to reverse provincial sex education promoted and adopted by the outgoing Liberals that dealt frankly with diverse sexual identities and raised awareness about homophobia. What about his firm stand against safe injection sites during an opioid crisis in Ontario? Will his campaign promises of 'efficiencies' result in cuts that will cripple social and environmental programs, or will he practice more prudent, less costly public administration?

Will he hark back to successful provincial regimes of the past, led by the highly successful John Robarts and Bill Davis in the 1960s and 70s? Davis’ famous slogan was “bland works.” He was the master of a calming centrist conservative approach that worked for the party for decades.

They drive the cars on which Ontario industry and suburban lifestyles depend, they are socially conservative, and they don’t want environmentalism and progressive social policy rammed down their throats.

The other Progressive Conservative path to political success is that of former premier Mike Harris, who won two majority governments from 1995 to 2002. Harris, while not an entirely obnoxious public brute, was often scathing about his opponents and claimed that his brand of northern Ontario ‘common sense politics’ was more in step with public values than the academic and media élites of Toronto presumed they were. Such a truculent posture worked for Harris and it worked again in the just concluded campaign for DoFo.

Will the coming weeks and months reveal the projection of the more steady, firm, almost avuncular campaign posture adopted by DoFo, or will he evoke the confrontational, uncivil patterns of his brother’s mayoralty? Will it be more comforting Bill Davis, or more abrasive and ideological Mike Harris?

Ford’s opponents, some of whom cannot contain their horror about the election result, love to compare him to Trump, and as noted, there are some similarities. But as Daniel Dale, Washington correspondent of The Toronto Star, pointed out at a recent conference of journalists, there are significant and telling political differences between the two. One can hardly claim that Ford’s victory is the revenge of angry white men. Like his brother who built 'Ford Nation' from diverse Toronto suburbs, DoFo appeals to significant numbers of people in highly diverse suburban communities in southern Ontario. They drive the cars on which Ontario industry and suburban lifestyles depend, they are socially conservative, and they don’t want environmentalism and progressive social policy rammed down their throats. Ford opposed carbon emission control policies proposed by the outgoing Liberal government and he promised a 10¢ per litre reduction in gas prices.

Rob Ford had famously (if fatuously) declared that ‘the war on the car is over,’ and consistent with this, his brother’s victory is likely to be bad news for Ontario environmentalists. Voters who feel they are over-taxed by interfering governments found their new champion in car-choked and car-dependent southern Ontario. As DoFo angrily, but accurately, pointed out, it is easier to be an environmentalist and public transportation advocate living near a subway stop in Toronto than as a resident of a far flung suburb of the greater Toronto area who has no way to get about other than in a car because of decades of under investment in public transportation.

Renata Ford's lawsuit alleges that the Ford brothers deprived her and her children of millions of dollars from the estate. [o]

Another question: can we expect Doug Ford to attempt to maintain a large Ontario Progressive Conservative tent that welcomes the fiscally prudent, urbane centrists along with social and religious conservatives? Here’s perhaps another significant difference with the current American president: expect to see more women in prominent cabinet roles. DoFo owes Elliott and Mulroney big time. Elliott, a lawyer and the widow of revered former federal Conservative finance minister, Jim Flaherty, is likely destined for a senior legal or economic portfolio. Mulroney, also a lawyer, is daughter of former prime minister, Brian Mulroney. She is less experienced politically than Elliott, but elegantly represents the ambitions of younger conservative women. Ms. Mulroney’s star will rise.

Canada’s most influential English language daily, Toronto's Globe and Mail, reported that Doug Ford dealt hashish as a teenager in suburban Toronto, allegations that he has denied. Given such stories and the recent lawsuit launched by Rob Ford’s widow, Renata Ford, which claims that brother Doug mismanaged the family company and squandered Rob’s estate, we can expect further exploration of Ford family members’ rich past and extravagant character. (Ford denies Renata’s claims, which have not been proven in court.)

But will it even hurt Doug Ford? That narrative might be the jet fuel of an expanding Ford Nation — and just more evidence of the élites ganging up on good ol’ DoFo.

And hey, what’s so bad about a past as a hashish entrepreneur in a province where the provincial government will be dealing dope in a matter of months? Canada is slated to soon legalize marijuana with the provinces in charge of distribution. From that perspective Doug Ford’s electoral victory might be perfectly timed.



JAMES CULLINGHAM is a documentary filmmaker, historian and journalist. His latest film Jim Galloway: A Journey in Jazz will have its world premiere June 28 at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.



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