The ascent of Doug Ford has given rise to a spate of comparisons between the Ontario Premier-elect and Donald Trump. And why not? The similarities between the two as individuals are pretty obvious. They are both bullies. They both come from wealth, but masquerade as men of the people, attacking the “elites”. Both are more popular with male voters than female, and share an apparent disdain for the processes of government. And they both ran on pie-in-the-sky platforms, making promises they likely can’t keep.
But the nature of their rise to power is different and the difference is significant when it comes to making sense of the Ontario election. Like Trump, Ford out-foxed the establishment to win leadership of their respective parties. But Trump inherited a party that had a 50-year history of racism and reactionary politics. He narrowly won the presidential race by playing to that base with anti-immigrant rhetoric while wooing depressed industrial swing state voters with promises to bring back lost manufacturing jobs.
Ford’s path to electoral victory was nothing like that. On immigration, Trump wants to build a wall and impose travel bans. Ford, perhaps riding on the pro-immigrant reputation of his late brother Rob, probably owes his victory to gains in the furthest reaches of suburban Toronto – the famous 905 area code – most heavily populated by immigrants.
Peel Region, where according to the latest Census over 50 per cent of citizens are immigrants and 62 per cent visible minorities, gave the Conservatives eight seats, up from zero in 2014. Durham and York, with 38 per cent immigrants and 41 per cent visible minorities, gave the Fordists 13 seats, up from just two in 2014. The Conservatives swung another dozen seats from the Liberals in the city of Toronto (47 per cent immigrant population) mostly in the immigrant-rich inner suburbs such as Scarborough and Etobicoke, the Fords’ stomping grounds. Together, those minority-dominated Toronto-area seats accounted for over 60 per cent of the seats picked up by the Conservatives, guaranteeing a Conservative caucus with ample visible minority representation.
NDP strong in “rust belt”
In evoking comparisons with Trump, some pundits have also over-emphasized Conservative support from voters in the so-called rust belt, hit by the decline in manufacturing jobs. The Conservatives did pick up five seats from the Liberals in the hard-pressed industrial communities south and west of Toronto, but the NDP also gained seats there and remain the dominant party in the area stretching west from Niagara Falls to Windsor. And the Conservatives made no gains up north, where times are even tougher than in the rust belt. The NDP still dominate there as well.
While the Trump-Ford comparisons on immigration and lost manufacturing jobs fall short, there is one similarity that we can expect to hear a great deal about – most of the deep suburban ridings that swung to Ford from the Liberals are lower income, while a batch of affluent downtown seats went from the Liberals to the NDP. As Jeffrey Simpson put it in the Globe and Mail the Ford victory “cements the PCs’ long transformation from a party of the powerful to a party of those who feel alienated from power… Central areas of Toronto and Ottawa with their affluence, trendiness, diversity, cultural institutions, government buildings, museums and concert halls, head offices, startup companies, large hospitals and universities are now NDP strongholds. Karl Marx would be shaking his head.”
Conservative strength in rural areas and small towns is nothing new, but their appeal to some working class, immigrant voters in the suburbs is. That, along with the stuff about Marx shaking his head, will endure with pundits on the right, eager to keep alive the Ford campaign slogan “For the people.” Support for the NDP from affluent seats in downtown Toronto was an anomaly, the product of strategic voting. Outside downtown TO and Ottawa, 85 per cent of the seats won by the NDP reported income below the provincial average in 2015 according to data published by Revenue Canada. That may not prevent claims that the party has joined the elite – especially now that elite has been re-defined to replace wealth with education. But once you get past that sidebar, the thing that jumps out from the Ontario election is that voters in largely immigrant, lower-income suburban districts voted for a right wing Conservative to get rid of a Liberal government unresponsive to their needs.
Federal Transfers a concern
In this part of the country, there’s been some discussion about whether Ford’s brand of right wing populism could happen in Nova Scotia. Anything is possible, but rather than fret about whether Ford will find successful populist imitators sometime down the road, we should watch how his government behaves in the short term. One Ford-Trump similarity of concern is climate change. If Ford follows through on his threat to scrap Ontario’s cap and trade program, the already puny national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will become even weaker. Another Trump-Ford parallel to worry about is their inflated campaign rhetoric. Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” has led to the current skirmish over trade, with unknown dire short-term effects on Canada. Ford’s pledge to “Make Ontario Great Again” could also have a negative impact on this region if his government demands a bigger share of federal programs.
The Liberal government he is replacing was no fan of the federal transfer system and its impact on Ontario. Kathleen Wynne and her predecessor complained constantly about Ontario getting shafted by federal programs that allegedly short-changed Ontario. As Premier, Dalton McGuinty even financed a think tank to churn out documents complaining about how EI and equalization favoured the Atlantic Provinces over Ontario. Ontario lobbied hard for per capita federal health and social transfers, to this province’s detriment, and has been staunch in opposition to any adjustment to health transfers to take demographics into account.
Federal transfers to the provinces did not appear to play a part in the election campaign. It may be that Doug Ford, along with most people, doesn’t even know or care about the issues. But he will soon find out. He put himself in a box during the campaign – promising among other things to fix health care and build infrastructure while cutting taxes and paying for it by finding $6 billion worth of unspecified inefficiencies. The day after the election he clarified that “the most important thing is getting our fiscal house in order.” Unless he wants to risk massive cuts to health and education that will disproportionately affect many of those who voted for him, that means more revenue from somewhere.
Experience going back to the days of Bob Rae should tell us that when an Ontario Premier starts talking about getting the fiscal house in order, re-working federal transfers to Ontario’s advantage moves up the agenda. The opportunity to change health transfers to help provinces with older populations was lost when the Atlantic Liberal Premiers caved during negotiations two years ago. If that initiative ever had a chance to get back on the table, the opportunity has likely passed with the Conservative win in Ontario. Equalization is up for renewal next year and having a revenue hungry Doug Ford at the negotiation table will make it very difficult for Nova Scotia and the other Atlantic provinces to hold the line on that program, let alone get a fairer deal.
So we should worry less about whether Doug Ford is like Trump or a model for home grown demagogues and more about whether, when it comes to federal transfers to the provinces, he will be an amped-up version of his Ontario-first predecessors.