Yours to Discover: Welcome to Ford Nation
The runway to Ontario’s budget resembled a birthday bash for Doug Ford. He beamed with pleasure. He could not sleep the night before the transit announcement because he was so excited. His friends were gathered around. There weren’t balloons but there were slogans and stickers.
It was pure marketing hype. Taking notes from the Donald Trump playbook, Ford teased and distracted with partisan gas pump stickers, which erroneously blame the Trudeau government for their so called carbon “tax” to fight carbon pollution, without mentioning the accompanying federal rebate of $300 for the average household.
In choosing the car license motto “A Place to Grow,” the second line of the famous Ontario Expo 67 tune, Ford cleverly built a bridge back to the successful Conservatives era of John Robarts and Bill Davis. That past connection is important because Ford Nation, an amalgamation of fiscal Conservatives, libertarians and right wing populists, is a phenomenon that has never held power outside of Toronto City Council. Will the Ford brand overtake the Conservative brand? Just where is Ontario headed?
The budget was disingenuous. Who could possibly be against free dental care for low income seniors? Who could possibly be against a child-care tax credit? Who could possibly be against more money to combat guns and gangs?
But here’s the trick. It wasn’t what the budget said. It was what it didn’t say.
No mention of poverty. No mention of domestic violence. No mention of the challenges faced by parents of autistic children. No mention that the Office of the Children’s Advocate has disappeared into the Ombudsman’s Office. No mention of refugees or immigrants. No mention of diversity or equality. No mention of reconciliation.
In addition, budgets of 13 departments have been slashed, including Indigenous Affairs, Environment and the Ministry of the Attorney General.
The reduction of health care units is equally worrying. A tweet by Joe Cressy, a Toronto city councillor, mentions that the units monitor water quality. In 2000, seven people died of contaminated water and 1,200 others were sick during the terrible Walkerton tragedy. The O’Connor Inquiry subsequently found that environmental cuts by the Harris government and negligence by two employees were responsible.
Despite the premier’s happy face, he has trouble. Moody Investor’s Services has noted that Ontario is the world’s largest sub sovereign debtor, a fact that was underlined in the budget. The fiscal situation is concerning but pretending everything is fine while cutting by stealth, will have negative consequences on many vulnerable people. Already, the Law Society of Ontario has expressed its grave concern over the cuts to Legal Aid Ontario, which will impact legal services for refugees and immigrants.
Ford has some ideas but his impulsive behaviour and superficial thinking is worrying. Remember Buck a Beer? No one was interested. Undaunted, his budget has launched a suite of alcohol liberalization laws, flying in the face of stiff drinking and driving legislation.
As well, his habit of mixing cronyism with official business must cease. The clumsy attempt to make Ron Taverner, a Toronto police superintendent and Ford family friend, the head of the Ontario Provincial Police, was met with howls of outrage. Fortunately, Taverner appeared to have wiser judgment and withdrew his name.
Like Trump, Ford boasts. He proclaimed his $28.5 billion transit plan as “the largest investment in Canadian history” but he neglected to mention that he will only pay $11 billion. He also neglected to consult the mayor of Toronto and apparently the federal government, yet he assumed their buy in.
His past actions should signal a red flag. If the municipal or federal governments are willing to partner, they must insist on strict governance and audit rules with regular and transparent updates to the public, lest we find ourselves with an Ontario version of Boston’s Big Dig (the largest highway project in the history of the United States). It lasted 25 years, drove taxpayers crazy with cost over runs and disrupted the heart of the city. The initial estimate of $2.56 billion finally ended up at $14.8 billion.
We must hope that Premier Ford can grow ... just like his license plate proclaims for Ontario.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @penottawa