In the three weeks since the new Conservative government of Ontario took office, they have worked swiftly to reverse the green legacy of the previous government, along with other regressive moves. This is happening in spite of having had a reasonable, centre-right platform only three months earlier. How did this happen?
It’s worth looking at the series of unfortunate events which have led to Canada’s largest province turning a shade much uglier than green before cataloguing the actions they have taken to move into the past.
The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario has been out of power in Ontario for 15 years. During those years the Liberal party under Dalton McGuinty and then Kathleen Wynne had a series of majority and minority governments and had created a strong track record of cleaning up the province. They had pledged to and successfully eliminated coal-fired electricity generation, getting rid of 37 millions tons of CO2 emissions and 55 seriously bad air days a year in the process.
Their efforts shaped Ontario into a global leader in wind and solar generation, and not coincidentally also led the world in anti-wind health hysteria. They had mostly fixed the long term mismanagement of Hydro One so that it was both paying for itself and paying down its decades-old nuclear debt, or at least finally servicing the interest on the debt. To further drive reductions in emissions, the administration implemented a carbon cap-and-trade program in partnership with California and Quebec.
Parallel work in the transportation sector resulted in one of the strongest electric vehicle incentive programs in the world. The progressive government implemented a modern, evidence-based sexual education curriculum that included consent, LGBTQ awareness and transgender awareness which social conservatives were convinced signaled the end of times.
All of this was accomplished as the Liberals kept the economy chugging along in the wake of global labor arbitrage and flight of manufacturing. Though it maintained a high debt load, Canada’s GDP made it the 18th largest country in the world, with a lower debt-to-GDP ratio than most countries. Until recently, Ontario was the California of Canada when viewed through these lenses. Not any more.
The Conservatives had a string of eight interim and theoretically permanent leaders over the last fifteen years, none of whom could manage the party into a leadership position. In most elections, they managed to shoot themselves in the feet with social conservatism that a large majority of Ontario residents didn’t like at all. The Conservative losing streak looked to be over, thanks to two driving factors: Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne had personally become very unpopular with the public. It appears completely unjustified, but wonky competence doesn’t necessarily win friends in changing times.
The second was that the Conservatives had a platform and a leader that appeared to be viable alternatives for the first time in 15 years. Patrick Brown was selected as leader in 2015 and crafted a centre-right platform that was fully laid out, costed and a very reasonable alternative in context of Ontario to the Liberal platform and budget. He appeared to have dragged the Conservatives into the 21st Century, still conservative but a return to the progressive end of the spectrum that resonated in an age of marijuana legalization, gay marriage and carbon pricing.
Brown turned out to be exactly who everyone knew he was otherwise, and was turfed in a #MeToo moment which a many people saw coming. He was a bad choice from that perspective, but conservatives everywhere are a bit slow off the mark on that file. This happened in February of 2018, four months before the election.
The party threw a hasty leadership convention and had to pick from two deeply competent, experienced, intelligent and charismatic women and an ignorant populist with the charm of a mistreated pit bull. Naturally, having just ditched a man with an ugly personality defect, the party picked a man with an ugly personality defect to replace him. You may remember Doug Ford as the brother of Toronto’s crack-smoking former mayor and international punch line, Rob Ford.
Doug Ford tore up the reasonable platform that had been crafted for his party and instead campaigned in populist sound bites.
Buck a beer. Make gas 10 cents cheaper. 12% cheaper electricity. Fire the CEO of Hydro. Kill the carbon price.
All stupid ideas, expressed simply and repeatedly. Sound familiar?
There were two other parties on the centre-left: the Green Party and the Ontario NDP and there was only one conservative party in the election. 60% of voters chose someone other than the current premier of Ontario and the Conservative Party. But the intelligent vote was split three-ways, so the populist and ignorant Doug Ford made it into power.
It’s worth pointing out that the Ford administration isn’t demographically representative of the vastly diverse populace of Ontario. Exit polls showed that two-thirds of Ford voters were men and the average age of a Ford voter is 55. They are much less likely to have a university degree than the average Ontario resident and they are mostly suburbanites, living on the fringes of cities. They trend white too, but not solely. It appears that reactionary populism isn’t the sole domain of aging white men.
So here we are. Doug Ford and his populist platform are now in power with a stunning majority of seats based on a stunning minority of votes from an unrepresentative subset of the populace. This is a testament to the challenges of multi-party politics, first-past-the-post elections and the arrogance of the three centre-left parties in persisting independently instead of merging.
Has Doug Ford looked at the actual results and asked, “Should I govern with respect, dignity and caution, given that a strong majority voted against me?” Obviously no. With the ghost of his crack-smoking brother looking on, Ford has acted with haste and little thought to implement his populist slogans in ways which which will haunt Ontario for years.
He immediately killed Ontario’s participation in carbon trading and chaos has ensued. The federal government under Trudeau is implementing a carbon tax on every province that doesn’t have a price on carbon already, so Ontario is going to have a different system almost from the start.
Ford has joined with another backward looking province, Saskatchewan, in a legal challenge which all legal analysts say is doomed to fail. Businesses have just achieved compliance with the old cap-and-trade system, shelling out $12 billion in carbon credits. Now, they will have to tear that up, only to be hit again by yet another carbon tax system. Businesses like stability, not regulatory churn and this flip-flopping on carbon policy is bad for business.
Ford immediately cancelled a wind farm in a rural area near Toronto that’s filled with Ontario millionaires’ retirement residences. The cancellation is expected to run up nearly $100 million in cancellation and legal fees, after the dust has settled on the matter. As if that weren’t enough, Ford and his government have announced that they are cancelling another 757 renewables contracts in Ontario. That means more cancellation fees, more lawsuits and more legal fees. Just to put icing on the cake, they extended the aging Pickering nuclear plant’s life an expensive four more years because of 3,500 conservative trending jobs.
The combination is going to make the energy sector in Ontario more expensive as everyone raises their prices to deal with increased risk for all future work. This is bad for business.
He forced the resignation of Hydro One’s CEO and the Board of Directors by threatening to introduce legislation which would give him the power to fire them. $9 million in settlement to the CEO is ensuing and what talented executive will want a job where he’s going to be Ford’s whipping boy? This is bad for business.
He threw out the modern sex-ed curriculum and replaced it with the old one, which is squarely set in 1980 and doesn’t mention consent. Employers loved the modern policy because it means that they are less likely to have to deal with #MeToo problems with young new employees who were educated in the 21st Century. Now, human resources problems are going to be rolling through the doors. And the creative class of Richard Florida, the actual drivers of modern economies, loved the policies as well. So now the creative class is going to be asking whether they should still be based in Ontario or move to Ontario from other jurisdictions. Increasingly they’ll leave or stay away. This is bad for business.
Ford cancelled electric car rebates designed to speed the transition to the future, leaving many electric car purchasers in the lurch, depending on when they took delivery of cars they had already committed to purchasing. The transition to electric vehicles is coming, whether or not Ontario is on board and with Ontario being an automobile manufacturing hub for North America, this regressive shift calls Ontario’s manufacturing future into question. This is bad for business.
He is working to reduce the price of a liter of gasoline by 10 cents. It’s about $1.29 right now, so that’s about an 8% reduction. Behavioral economics tells us that cheaper gas will inevitably lead people to buy less efficient cars and to drive more. The combination of fewer electric vehicle purchases in Ontario and more low-efficiency vehicles in the province is exactly the opposite of sensible climate policy.
Ford has eliminated rebates to home owners for efficiency retrofits. So much for smart thermostats reducing energy consumption in Ontario homes.
More regressive moves are undoubtedly in the works. Ford and his suburban supporters hate any transit options which don’t favor cars streaming into the city unhindered. This includes light rail and transit construction projects. He promises subways, but what he means is no transit. Provincial support for bike lanes has undoubtedly disappeared.
Doug Ford has taken Ontario’s reasonable set of environmental policies and a transformation that was positive overall and is regressing it rapidly, ignorantly and with likely much more expensive overall results.
If this looks like a lot of chaos and regressive policies from several decades in the past that will invariably cause businesses to avoid Ontario in greater numbers, that’s because it is. If it looks like policies that are bad for the people of Ontario, that’s because they are. If it looks like a set of decisions which are bad for the environment and the health of people in Ontario, that’s because it is. If this looks like a populist claiming early wins with complete disregard for consequences, that’s because it is.
Ontario and Toronto have benefited globally from being progressive, having clean air, from being safe for people of all genders and sexual preferences, and from having stable, well-thought through policies. That’s in the past now.
[Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story referred to Ontario Hydro instead of Hydro One]