Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives won the June 2 election in impressive fashion. They’ll form a second straight majority government after taking 83 of the 124 contested seats. That’s seven seats higher than they won in 2018, and a 16 seat increase from the dissolution of the previous legislative session.
The two main opposition parties, Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats and Steven Del Duca’s Liberals, earned 31 and 8 seats respectively. Both party leaders announced their resignations on election night. (The remaining two provincial seats were won by Green Party leader Mike Schreiner and Independent candidate Bobbi Ann Brady.)
With this victory, Ford established himself as one of Canada’s most important and influential Conservative politicians. This would have seemed like an impossibility several years ago.
Readers may recall the trials and tribulations involving Ford’s younger brother, Rob. A successful municipal politician, he was elected Mayor of Toronto in Oct. 2010. Alas, he had personal demons when it came to alcohol and drug use. Allegations of partying, lewd behaviour and smoking crack cocaine in one of his “drunken stupors” made local headlines. The story also went viral internationally thanks to frequent coverage by U.S. late night hosts like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart.
Ford had been elected as a city councillor in Rob’s old stomping grounds, Ward 2 Etobicoke North, that year. He regularly defended his brother’s honour and reputation, and strongly pushed back against attacks from political opponents, critics and the media. They were part of a close-knit family. Wherever Rob Ford was, Doug Ford was close by.
When his brother, who had taken a leave of absence to deal with his substance abuse issues, was diagnosed with cancer in Sept. 2014, Ford ran for mayor in his stead and lost to John Tory. The former Toronto Mayor ran for city councillor, won his old seat back and passed away in Mar. 2016.
Some political observers understood why Ford had defended his younger brother on a near-daily basis. Many would have likely done the same thing if they had been in his shoes. The anti-Ford contingent, however, paid no heed to this and painted him with the same political brush.
When Ford unexpectedly abandoned his second mayoral campaign against Tory in Feb. 2018 to run for the Ontario PC leadership and won, his critics felt party members had made a poor decision and would live to regret it. When Ford won the general election on June 7, his critics pointed out the unpopularity of then-Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and said he simply rode an existing wave for political change.
When Ford, as Premier, reduced the number of Toronto’s council wards from 47 to 25, supported cuts to bloated municipal services, reduced several costly educational programs (including free tuition for low-income students), enforced back-to-work legislation to end the York University strike and faced some backlash with several patronage appointments, his critics questioned his every move and basic motives. When Ford announced short-lived COVID-19 restrictions related to police powers, school closures and keeping playgrounds open, his critics said his political goose was cooked and would only be a one-term Premier.
They were wrong in each and every instance. His political opponents didn’t – and, to this day, still don’t – understand the key to his political success.
The Premier, along with his late brother, had built a unique brand of conservatism. His guiding philosophy, Ford Nation, combines populist rhetoric and conservative principles. It stands for lower taxes, reducing government expansion and interference, fiscal prudence, supporting individual rights and freedoms, standing up for the little guy – and giving power back to the people.
Ford isn’t a traditional conservative ideologue, however. He’s always believed in building bridges with individuals and groups who aren’t necessarily natural allies. He successfully worked hand-in-hand with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland during COVID-19, for instance. He earned the endorsement of several unions while promoting free markets and free enterprise. He provided strong leadership during the pandemic by developing strong ties with a medical community that was somewhat skeptical of working with him at first.
This is pure retail politics at its core. There’s something in his plan for just about everyone, and many Ontarians found a thing or two to call their own. They also learned this Premier is the genuine article. The man I met in his late father’s legislative office many years ago is the same man who is currently leading Ontario, and not the one who was trapped in the difficult, circus-like atmosphere of Toronto politics over a decade ago.
Ford has identified a political formula that could potentially work for Conservatives in Liberal Canada. With the federal cousins in the midst of a tense and somewhat volatile leadership race, he’s provided acknowledged frontrunner Pierre Poilievre and others with some important food for thought. We’ll see if they opt to consume any of it.
It’s also worth noting former U.S. President Donald Trump, former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson employed similar political messaging and strategies to Ford’s during their election campaigns. These men are all different from one another, but realized their brands of conservatism needed to have broader appeal to achieve greater electoral success.
A subtle nod to the growing legacy of Ford Nation, perhaps.
Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.