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Are Doug Ford’s Ontario PC s really doing “just like Bill Davis did so many years ago”

Public sector unions, especially connected with education, have been intermittent thorns in the sides of all of Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic governments of Ontario for the past several decades.

In late November 2022 the Ford government’s standing up while also conceding to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, acting on behalf of striking non-teaching education workers, may finally win decisive support from parents too long haunted by children out of school.

Yet the province’s tentative deal with CUPE  (still to be ratified by education workers) does raise questions about just where the Ford government is going in its second term.

Is the current incarnation of the Ford Nation PC Party really “building a stronger province  … just like Bill Davis did so many years ago” — as finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy urged in his recent Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review speech?

Or does the Ford government still have all the wrong basic instincts to seriously cover itself in the mantle of the William Davis Progressive Conservatives, 1971–1985?

On the side of the angels, 11 days after it was passed Premier Ford did repeal Bill 28. It had imposed a contract on striking CUPE education workers, banned  them from further striking, and then invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution Act, 1982, lest anyone claim Bill 28 violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The likes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed alarm at the Ford government’s almost casual invoking of the notwithstanding clause in Bill 28. Opinion polls like the one published by Abacus Data on November 6 may have influenced the premier’s decision to repeal as well.

In response to the question “Ultimately, who do you blame the most for schools being closed due to the education worker strike,” 38% of the Abacus Ontario respondents said “Education Workers” and 62% said “Provincial Government.”

This Abacus poll also captures the Ford government’s democratic dilemma in a deeper sense. The 38% of Ontario respondents  who blamed Education Workers for closed schools is not much different from the less than 41% of the province-wide popular vote the Ford PC s won in this past June’s election.

With now four parties in a first-past-the-post electoral system, this clear minority of the popular vote was enough to give the PC s a two-thirds majority of the seats in the Legislative Assembly — in the lowest voter turnout election in Ontario since 1867!

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2022 the 62% in the Abacus poll who blamed the Provincial Government  for closed schools is not much different from the more than 59% who voted against the Ford government this past June 2.

The William Davis Progressive Conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s — or even the long Progressive Conservative dynasty from 1943 to 1985 — may at least have advice to offer here.

Like the Ford Ontario PCs of the 21st century, the historic PC dynasty never quite won a majority of the province-wide popular vote. The average over the 12 elections from 1943 to 1981 was 43%

But the PC dynasts remembered  that the majority of the people of Ontario regularly voted against them. They stayed in office for 42 years by skillfully exploiting the traditional electoral system in a three-party legislature — and by keeping an eye on the real majority of the electorate.

Bill Davis and his peers similarly knew that over the longer term it is unwise to get too rough with your opponents when the majority of the people vote for them.

Whatever else, it is not easy to see much of the Premier Davis who stopped the Spadina Expressway in 1971 in the Ford Nation Ontario PCs a half century later.

The initial design of Bill 28 in the dispute between the Ford government and CUPE was a glaring example of what Bill Davis would resolutely avoid.

On the more complex sides of the dispute — beyond dismal worker wages — this past summer the Financial Accountability Office did report reductions in Ontario education spending.

The broader history of Ford Nation budgets is similarly intriguing. In the government’s first budget for 2019–20 the “Health Sector” accounted for 38.9% of Total Expense, and the “Education Sector” for 18.2%. In the budget for 2022–23 the Health Sector accounts for only 37.8% and the Education Sector only 16.3%.

There are no doubt a few possible deeper meanings for such raw statistics. Yet in any of them it is hard to see much that the former 1960s Minister of Education William Davis, who helped pioneer Ontario’s present-day health and education sectors, would welcome with open arms.

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