Ford is bet­ting big on an ap­petite for per­pet­ual con­flict


On­tario Pre­mier’s in-your-face gov­ern­ing style risks fa­tigu­ing his sup­port in the long run

Doug Ford keeps send­ing a very clear mes­sage about the test of On­tario’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that he will pro­vide over the next four years.

Again and again this week, the On­tario Pre­mier de­fended his plan to use the not­with­stand­ing clause – in re­sponse to a court rul­ing that his govern­ment’s over­haul of the Toronto elec­toral map in the mid­dle of a mu­nic­i­pal cam­paign was un­con­sti­tu­tional – by say­ing he is “stand­ing up for,” “pro­tect­ing” or act­ing with the au­thor­ity of “the 2.3 mil­lion peo­ple that elected this govern­ment.”

The im­pli­ca­tion, be­yond just try­ing to push back against per­ceived ju­di­cial ac­tivism, is clear. Mr. Ford fig­ures that not many peo­ple who are ag­grieved by what he is do­ing – who be­lieve he is tram­pling Toron­to­ni­ans’ democratic rights, creat­ing con­sti­tu­tional chaos, or both – voted for his party. So he’s happy to have them as foils.

As a mat­ter of short-term po­lit­i­cal strat­egy, he is prob­a­bly on solid ground. Most of his sup­port­ers, in sub­ur­ban or small-town On­tario, likely don’t care deeply about this is­sue. Some prob­a­bly feel more cer­tain they voted for the right guy the more over­heated the re­ac­tions – protests, talk of se­ces­sion, a Toronto Star car­toon sug­gest­ing we’re on the path to fas­cism – com­ing from down­town.

But if this is the way he in­tends to gov­ern, Mr. Ford is mak­ing a big bet on some­thing that has not yet been demon­strated: a sus­tained ap­petite, among enough vot­ers, for in-your-face gov­er­nance and per­pet­ual con­flict.

When Bill Davis emerged this week to crit­i­cize Mr. Ford’s con­duct, the 89-year-old for­mer pre­mier seemed like a relic of a by­gone era, when his Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives prided them­selves on mod­er­a­tion.

To­day, pol­i­tics is a lot more po­lar­ized, and all par­ties (con­ser­va­tive ones es­pe­cially) are more fix­ated on mo­bi­liz­ing ex­ist­ing sup­port­ers than win­ning new ones.

But it’s prob­a­bly not a to­tal co­in­ci­dence that the long­est-serv­ing pre­mier since Mr. Davis re­tired, and the PCs’ four-decade dy­nasty ended in the mid-1980s, is the Lib­er­als’ Dal­ton McGuinty.

Be­fore get­ting mired in scan­dal and con­tribut­ing to the ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide with his en­ergy poli­cies, Mr. McGuinty came clos­est to emulating Mr. Davis’s po­lit­i­cal for­mula – mak­ing a virtue of his own bland­ness as he strad­dled the mid­dle of the spec­trum.

The only pre­mier who has come any­where close to ini­ti­at­ing us-ver­sus-them fights the way Mr. Ford ap­pears in­clined to do, was Mike Harris, al­beit less im­petu­ously and with clearer pol­icy pur­pose; while his govern­ment got a sec­ond man­date, the PCs were then shunted to the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness for 15 years.

The next clos­est, in a fun­house mir­ror way, was Kath­leen Wynne, who es­chewed Mr. McGuinty’s prag­ma­tism in favour of a left-of-cen­tre pop­ulism that wel­comed fights with those who op­posed such poli­cies as rais­ing the min­i­mum wage; her Lib­er­als’ re­ward was los­ing of­fi­cial party sta­tus.

A com­mon bit of re­ceived wis­dom among po­lit­i­cal strate­gists that might help ex­plain pat­terns to date is that most vot­ers don’t want any politi­cian al­ways in their faces. No govern­ment can avoid even­tual fa­tigue, but be­ing a con­stant source of ten­sion might ac­cel­er­ate and in­ten­sify it to the point of ex­haus­tion.

A sec­ond po­ten­tial con­se­quence of con­flict is a grad­ual shrink­ing of a party’s tent. It may be that only a tiny share of the peo­ple who voted for the PCs this year are now re­con­sid­er­ing their votes.

But the next fight will give cause for re­sent­ment to a few more. Those votes are un­likely to be re­placed by new ones. In an elec­toral sys­tem in which a few per­cent­age points can make the dif­fer­ence be­tween ma­jor­ity govern­ment and hum­bling de­feat, that’s a lot of risk to take.

It’s also a risk to the broader pub­lic in­ter­est, what­ever the elec­toral out­come. Mr. Ford is not un­usual among pre­miers in ca- ter­ing to sup­port­ers. But fail­ing to main­tain even a pre­tense of gov­ern­ing for ev­ery­one, openly pit­ting On­tar­i­ans against each other, threat­ens to ex­ac­er­bate di­vides – ide­o­log­i­cal, ur­ban-ru­ral – and will make it harder even for fu­ture gov­ern­ments to of­fer com­mon pur­pose in a so­ci­ety less civil.

Or maybe we al­ready live in that world – af­ter re­spect for po­lit­i­cal norms has eroded, and pa­tience for prag­ma­tism has de­clined as more vot­ers feel left be­hind by eco­nomic or cul­tural change, and dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion has helped make us more tribal – and Mr. Ford is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of it .

So long as Mr. Ford re­mains con­vinced that the mi­nor­ity of vot­ers needed for a ma­jor­ity govern­ment re­main solidly be­hind him, On­tario will con­tinue to be part of an ex­per­i­ment in push­ing that world’s bound­aries.

On­tario Pre­mier Doug Ford speaks dur­ing ques­tion pe­riod at the On­tario Leg­is­la­ture in Toronto on Wed­nes­day.

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