Doug Ford’s war on the poor is any­thing but pop­ulist

The Niagara Falls Review - - Opinion - LINDA MCQUAIG

As I chug my eighth beer, savour­ing the thought that I have paid only a buck for each one, I re­al­ize I’ve reached the high point of On­tario’s new pop­ulist nir­vana.

It won’t get any bet­ter than this, since this is the ex­tent of Doug Ford’s pop­ulism.

While the word “pop­ulist” is bandied about to de­scribe plain-talkin’, right-wing politi­cians, that de­scrip­tion tar­nishes the rep­u­ta­tion of real 19th-cen­tury pop­ulists in the U.S. (and Canada) who ac­tu­ally cham­pi­oned the in­ter­ests of or­di­nary folk over the wealthy elite. Pres­sure from pop­ulist ranks helped put in place the U.S. in­come tax in 1913, as a way to tax the rich.

Doug Ford is no more a pop­ulist than my grand­mother was a stage­coach. Like Don­ald Trump, Ford got his start by in­her­it­ing wealth, and his poli­cies favour the rich, not the poor.

We’ve just come through sev­eral decades where politi­cians talked a lot (while do­ing lit­tle) about ris­ing in­equal­ity. Now, in On­tario, we’re back to a full-frontal em­brace of in­equal­ity.

The new premier has al­ready sig­nalled he’s gear­ing up to re­vive the nasty class war against the poor waged by former Con­ser­va­tive premier Mike Har­ris.

What makes this re­vival par­tic­u­larly in­sid­i­ous is that Ford didn’t cam­paign on it; he re­fused to re­veal where he’d wield the knife to pro­duce $6 bil­lion in spend­ing cuts, and specif­i­cally de­nied he would end the Ba­sic In­come Pi­lot Project.

But one of his first acts was to cut off that pi­lot project, ig­nor­ing prom­ises of ex­tra in­come that had been made to 4,000 poor peo­ple, many of whom went back to school ex­cited by the dream of im­prov­ing their dif­fi­cult lives.

An­other clear sig­nal of the Ford gov­ern­ment’s class-war in­ten­tions was its de­ci­sion last month to cut in half the sched­uled in­crease in ben­e­fits for so­cial as­sis­tance re­cip­i­ents, in­clud­ing those with dis­abil­i­ties.

Given the sub­stan­tial size of this wel­fare-col­lect­ing crowd, al­most a mil­lion peo­ple, one might ex­pect them to wield con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal power. But, in fact, they wield al­most none. In the halls of Queen’s Park, this mil­lion-strong army, strug­gling on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety, is es­sen­tially voice­less and in­vis­i­ble.

Their pow­er­less­ness is il­lus­trated by the fact that, af­ter Mike Har­ris slashed their ben­e­fits by a whop­ping 21.6 per cent in 1995, they never man­aged to re­cover. Twenty-three years later, their ben­e­fits are ac­tu­ally slightly lower to­day.

Just be­fore the June elec­tion, the Lib­er­als pledged to in­crease those wel­fare ben­e­fits by 3 per cent.

But Ford quickly jumped in, quash­ing any bud­ding hopes among the de­prived that there might be a tiny bit of progress — for the first time in 23 years! In­stead, the Ford gov­ern­ment cut the planned in­crease from 3 to 1.5 per cent, thereby snatch­ing $150 mil­lion from the poor­est cit­i­zens in the province — and then hav­ing the im­pu­dence to call its ac­tion “com­pas­sion­ate”.

This is likely just a fore­taste of the as­sault on the poor that’s com­ing. The Ford ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­duct­ing a 100-day re­view of so­cial as­sis­tance, which will prob­a­bly lead, among other things, to a clam­p­down on wel­fare fraud, even though the province could col­lect far more rev­enue by clamp­ing down on the tax fraud rou­tinely com­mit­ted by lawyers and busi­ness­peo­ple de­duct­ing sports tick­ets as “busi­ness en­ter­tain­ment.”

But then, un­like the muf­fled voices of wel­fare re­cip­i­ents, the voices of lawyers and busi­ness­peo­ple bel­low di­rectly into the premier’s ear.

The com­ing wel­fare clam­p­down isn’t just mo­ti­vated by mean-spirit­ed­ness; it’s aimed at ac­com­plish­ing a key right-wing goal: prod­ding the poor into ac­cept­ing pre­car­i­ous work.

By mak­ing the poor more des­per­ate, the clam­p­down will oblige them to ac­cept the grungi­est, most ex­ploita­tive, low­est-pay­ing jobs, notes John Clarke, or­ga­nizer for the On­tario Coali­tion Against Poverty.

And since Ford has also in­di­cated his in­ten­tion to can­cel the sched­uled rise in the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour, this in­creased des­per­a­tion will come in handy, at least for the province’s em­ploy­ers.

So Ford’s revved-up war against the poor could per­haps be de­scribed as po­lit­i­cally cun­ning. One thing it could never be de­scribed as is pop­ulist.

Linda McQuaig is an au­thor and jour­nal­ist.

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