What's up with Ontario? The June election that brought Doug Ford and his Conservatives to power has sent Shockwaves across the federation. In an instant, Ontario has gone from being a reliable centre-left partner of Justin Trudeau's Liberal federal government to being its principal antagonist. Using highly charged populist rhetoric not heard since the days of Depression-era Premier Mitch Hepburn, Ford is actively challenging Trudeau's climate change policy and calling into question his NAFTA strategy. In its first 100 days, the Conservatives have rolled back the previous government's environmental policies in the name of economic competitiveness and its social policies in the name of a silent majority.
Doug Ford has made politics and policy personal. Drawing from the populist repertoire, he claims the exclusive ability to speak "for the people" - positioning his opponents as enemies. His creation of a select committee of the legislature to investigate the accounting practices of the previous Liberal government - and characterizing them as fraud from which Liberals personally benefited - fuels a polarized climate in which political opponents are demonized. His decision to unilaterally reduce the size of Toronto's city council in the middle of the municipal election campaign, promising to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to do so if necessary, came off as a desire to settle scores from his time serving on that council with his late brother, Mayor Rob Ford.
In his 2001 book Loyal No More, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson wrote that Canada's largest province was retreating from its longstanding role as the country's moderate centre, a political community that so strongly identified with the nation as a whole that it lacked a distinct identity of its own. Whether Ford's election signals a permanent or a cyclical shift in Ontario's place in Confederation is unknown. What is clear is that federal-provincial relations are going to become more conflictual. And within the province, politics is going to get a whole lot nastier.
Place and politics
On the face of it, the Liberals' defeat was entirely predictable. Carrying the accumulated baggage of 15 years in office, their luck finally ran out. When Kathleen Wynne took over from Dalton McGuinty in 2013, she attempted to renew the Liberal brand much as the Conservative "Big Blue Machine" had done from the 1940s through the 1980s under premiers Drew, Frost, Robarts and Davis. In this she was unsuccessful. The Conservatives had led the polls for over a year before the 2018 election and were structurally best positioned to win as a government-in-waiting, regardless of the specifics of their platform or the personality of their leader.
This is all true as far as it goes, but it does not explain Ontario's electoral map. (1) Outside greater Toronto and Ottawa, we see a stark urban-rural divide across southern Ontario. The Conservatives won virtually every rural seat. The NDP took almost every riding containing a city or town of any size, including Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Niagara Falls, Oshawa, Sarnia and Welland, while Green Party leader Mike Schreiner won in Guelph. The politics of the big cities - greater Toronto and Ottawa - appear to operate according to a different logic, with the three major parties dividing metropolitan space. (Northern Ontario, with its handful of seats, has also marched to the beat of its own drummer, generally eschewing the Conservatives in favour of the NDP and the Liberals since the mid-1980s.)
It seems that place matters...