By David Bush
On Saturday, Ontario’s PC Party picked Doug Ford as their new leader. After revelations of sexual misconduct by Patrick Brown led him to resign in January, the party scrambled to find a new leader heading into the June 7 election.
The brief, but contentious, leadership contest exposed fractures within the Tory party. Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliot represented a softer version of Tory politics, downplaying social conservative rhetoric and muting their critiques of workers’ rights. For instance, Mulroney backed Brown’s plan to slowly raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2022, while Elliot stated she would raise the minimum wage to $15 when economic conditions allowed for it. Ford on the other hand outright opposed the $15 minimum wage and instead offered up tax cuts. Ford’s economic populism of tax cuts and privatization was ultimately also backed by the social conservative wing of the party, represented by Tanya Granic Allen, which opposes sex education and LGBTQ rights.
Ford won the leadership via the party’s weighted point system, without winning either the popular vote or the most ridings (Elliot won both). The slim defeat of the moderate establishment PC’s candidate shows the party is rife with division. It also signals that the tack towards the centre that Brown strategically took two years ago is over.
Ford will run on a hard right platform of balancing the budget through deep cuts. It will assuredly try to avoid previous PC mistakes of announcing all of his worst intentions in such an overt manner as Hudak’s planned 100,000 jobs cuts or stripping away of union rights. He will try to frame his campaign along the populist line that Ford Nation has already carved out, namely looking out for the little guy, offering up tax cuts, “stopping the gravy train” in the public sector, ending the carbon tax.
This is no doubt a bad development for workers in this province. Ford represents a more bullish and virulent right-wing strand of the party. Rob Ford’s administration in Toronto was steeped in a strident opposition to unions and workers’ rights. One of Rob Ford’s first acts as mayor was to privatize garbage service for half the city. Doug Ford continues this along with Ford Nations’ ugly brand of sexism, racism and homophobia – which will only get uglier as he plays to the social conservative part of his base.
What is deeply concerning about Ford is his ability to drag the whole political debate to the right in the lead up to the election. He will undoubtedly make this election about deficits, government corruption, and hydro, alongside standing up for taxpayers and small business. Painting the Liberals as downtown Toronto elites, we can expect Ford to present himself as the defender of the downtrodden against a runaway corrupt government.
To defend the key NDP/Tory battlegrounds in Southwestern Ontario it is quite possible the NDP will shift right to duke it out with Ford. The NDP has a policy book that is to the left of the Liberals, with better stances on major issues including workers’ rights and pharmacare. But when it comes to communication with the public, they have ceded much ground to the Liberals on issues like the $15 minimum wage and accessible post-secondary education. The NDP came out in support of the $15 minimum wage in April 2016, a year after Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign launched, but then the NDP never fully championed the idea. They never campaigned on it, never outlined a timeline for implementation and shied away from fully supporting other aspects of the campaign.
This left the door open for the Liberals, who announced their support for $15 in the spring of 2017 and passed a sweeping set of labour law reforms in November. During this period, the NDP stated that the Liberals should have announced the $15 minimum wage sooner because the phase-in was too quick and disruptive, which could have been avoided with a longer phase-in. The NDP was also the leading voice for tax credits and tax offsets for small business. During the Bill 148 hearings, they argued for tax credits, tax breaks, or offsets for small businesses three times more than both the PC and Liberals combined. The NDP pushed this onto the agenda and the Liberals passed a one percent tax cut, and other hiring incentives, for small business in November – costing the province $500 million over three years.
In Horwath’s February “Change for the Better” speech, she only mentioned workplace issues once in passing. Rather than being champions of decent work and a $15 minimum wage, the party has largely stayed silent or argued that the Liberals have stolen their ideas. In its press release responding to the Ford victory the NDP focused solely drawing battle lines around privatization they made no mention of his attack on abortion rights or the $15 minimum wage.
How not to beat Ford
In the vote rich GTA, look for the Liberals to present themselves as the defacto anti-Ford option. They will amp up the talk of strategic voting, and many unions and others on the left may join them. Years of job killing Liberal policies, attacks on union rights and its pro-corporate privatization agenda will be downplayed or outright ignored in the developing narrative of lesser evilism.
Those taking this road will likely focus on the character of Ford and his supporters. They will be mocked as brutes and bullies, as ignoramuses who should be kept out of power at all cost. The reactionary racism, sexism and homophobia that Ford Nation stirs is horrific and worrisome. It must be confronted head on. It would be an absolute tactical mistake to focus derision on the character of Ford Nation. As we know from the last U.S. election, when the left and progressives talk down to people, turn them into “deplorables” and rubes, it doesn’t turn out well.
Ford has a real base in this province that even extends into racialized communities in the GTA. Millions will vote for Ford because they see in him someone who speaks for them, for the taxpayer, someone who stands up to a political establishment, to unions, to intellectuals, to downtown elites to all the people that ignore and deride them.
If the NDP does not undertake a major course correction, it could be in for a world of pain. With Ford in the mix, talk of hydro costs, Liberal corruption, and tax cuts for small business will only feed the Ford Nation narrative and embolden the right-wing further. It would be an outright disaster for workers if Horwath focuses her campaign on balancing the budget, Liberal corruption and targeted tax cuts. For those who think that this cannot happen, remember this was the NDP playbook in 2014.
But, Ford is beatable. He doesn’t have the same affable charisma as his brother. While the Tory party is leading in the polls, it is in a bit of mess internally and there is not a major crisis that Ford can ride into power on. When Rob Ford came to power in 2010, it was on the back of a garbage strike provoked by then Toronto Mayor David Miller. Ford Nation was born on the back of progressives moving to the right.
Ford is vulnerable on a decent work agenda. Polling routinely shows that a $15 minimum wage is popular – even if the party most identified with the issue is not. Other workplace reforms, especially those aimed at improving minimum standards for all, like paid emergency leave days, fair scheduling, equal pay for equal work and cracking down on temp agencies have a resonance in the wider working class. Polarizing on class issues is our best chance at fighting Ford.
It would be the height of folly for labour and the left to abandon campaigning on these issues for strategic voting or targeting specific ridings. What is needed more than ever is a redoubling of effort and resources into grassroots campaigns like the Fight for $15 and Fairness, which has already proven effective in redrawing the political terrain in the province by speaking to the wider working class, including union and non-union workers.
We cannot treat Ford’s victory for PC Party leader as a coronation for premier. Ford is vulnerable. But his leadership victory requires us to re-focus on polarizing along class issues, pushing OUR agenda for decent work with workers right across the province. We need to keep bully bosses in the crosshairs, who will no doubt feel empowered to attack workers with a possible Ford administration on the horizon.;
If we let Ford control the narrative and force the political debate and other parties to the right, we are finished. Ford can be beat, but this means we need to fight.