A buck-a-beer: the symbol of Ontario populism.
A buck a beer. A world before sexting, before climate change, before modern complexities. It all appears comforting. If we could go back in time, everything would be simpler.
This is the message of populist politicians. U.S. President Donald Trump is “making America great again,” and Premier Doug Ford is evoking nostalgic images of cheap beer.
Populist politicians use sentimental yearnings for times past to strike a chord with people who are unsure about how to confront today’s intricate problems. Voters are discouraged by complexities and fearful about the future. The past seems like a safer place to be.
It is true that globalization has made our world more difficult to govern. Nevertheless, it is not the first time in history that governance models have had to adapt to massive change. The Industrial Revolution led to improved working conditions and the information revolution to improved privacy laws.
Current models offer a more indirect and restrained form of governance, away from the bans and prohibitions of the past and toward more subtle incentives to encourage the right type of behaviour, from environmental compliance to health promotion.
Also, performance is measured and results are achieved over time. For example, we know that the air is cleaner in Toronto since the closing of coal plants, or that child poverty has been reduced, or that more students are graduating from high school than 20 years ago.
This new form of governing is effective. But it is also less visible and more complicated to explain. It certainly does not lend itself to slogans like buck a beer. Nor does it always inspire people to be confident about their ability to master the future.
But they should be confident. Ontario’s future is just as bright as its past. We continue to be blessed with a growing agricultural sector, with mines, with forests, with rivers and lakes. We have efficient and competitive manufacturing plants, a well-educated workforce, booming high-tech and green-tech sectors. We are a leader in financial services. We produce athletes and artists to be proud of. And lots more.
We certainly can do more than buck a beer as a policy agenda.
This populist trend will pass. Although it is tempting to romanticize the past, it does not help address our future needs. Hollow and facile messaging often masks inaction and a lack of vision.
Ford’s summer has been about cancelling contracts he did not like (wind turbines), cancelling elections he did not like (Toronto’s municipal election and some regional election), cancelling a curriculum he did not like (sex-ed), cancelling programs he did not like (cap-and-trade and basic income). On the positive side, all he has produced is cheap beer on Labour Day.
Maybe after Labour Day we will learn how he plans to tackle important issues like economic development, poverty reduction and climate change. But don’t count on it.
Liberal MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers (Ottawa-Vanier) was the president of the Law Commission of Canada, the dean of Civil Law and Common Law at the University of Ottawa.