By the time Ontario Premier Doug Ford is finished with Toronto, the city will be lucky if it’s allowed to hire a dogcatcher without Queen’s Park first passing enabling legislation.
Mayor John Tory will want to keep his short pants close at hand.
Forget about governing by disruption, Ford’s gleeful politics of destruction have wreaked havoc across the province, nowhere more so than in its largest city, which he is remaking as fast as the legislative process will allow. Last week alone he cleared the way for the province to “upload” Toronto’s subway system, undid Ontario Municipal Board reform and, to add insult to injury, brought back old developer-friendly rules, and then withdrew funding that supports more than 6,000 subsidized daycare spots in Toronto.
Last fall, Ford cut Toronto city council in half, seemingly on a whim, and again made a point of adding insult to injury by announcing the cut during the October civic election. Since then, he has reduced local health-care funding precipitously, taken over Ontario Place, threatened to raise highway speed limits and generally behaved like a jerk.
Clearly, this is a man quite comfortable inflicting pain, who nurses a grudge and prizes loyalty over competence. Officially, of course, he does what he does because it has to be done: Ford insists Toronto’s administration is inefficient and Ontario’s deficit has reached a point where debt reduction is job one. But as Toronto’s chief medical officer has said, many will be hurt by his decisions, some fatally.
Ironically, though Ford espouses smaller government, which he sees as a drag on corporate profits, his government has intruded into the lives of Ontarians directly, recklessly, even violently. It is impossible now for anyone who lives and works in this province to ignore Queen’s Park. Except for the rich, all Ontario residents are affected by Ford’s relentless cutting whether they live in cities, suburbs and rural areas.
The question is: why such brutality? If Ford’s aim really were deficit elimination, he’d be going after more than local library services, daycare and funding for tree planting. These cuts will hurt families and what’s left of the environment, but they represent a tiny fraction of the province’s $350-billion debt. Were lowering the deficit the objective, Ford would take the axe to big-ticket items such as corporate subsidies and electricity rebates.
Truth is that every premier since 1989 has left the debt larger than when he/she took office. That includes Ontario’s first Progressive Conservative disrupter, Mike Harris, as well Ford’s most convenient villain, Kathleen Wynne. Despite the downloading and service cuts, Harris managed to increase provincial debt exponentially. A 1998 study by the Ontario Alternative Working Budget Group concluded that, “By 2001-2, the (Harris) tax cut … increased the provincial debt by $30 billion.”
Yet even when facing enormous debt, governments of all stripes are unable to resist the lure of tax cuts. Sadly, making up the lost revenue means taking on more debt. This hasn’t kept Ford from doing his bit to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy and the corporate sector, for which he cancelled a planned minimum wage. Little wonder many dismiss his party’s boasts about getting provincial spending under control. On closer examination, that turns out to be mostly propaganda.
Clearly, the key to understanding Ford’s motivation lies elsewhere, perhaps in his double fixation on speed and booze, things close to the heart of every male teenager in Ontario and beyond. Despite evidence from other jurisdictions that speed kills, the premier wants to look at increasing speed limits on the 400 series highways. He would also allow bars to open at 9 a.m. and liquor stores to close at 11 p.m. He wants brewers to sell beer for a buck a bottle and make it available at the corner store. Then there are tailgate gatherings he hopes to legalize. Ontario has always been open for business, but now it’s ready to get down.
From any other premier, such a sophomoric agenda would have been met with utter disbelief. Coming from Ford it seems normal. Inappropriate, disturbing and bizarre, but normal. Drink first thing in the morning, but do so responsibly. And by the way, faster highways will reduce congestion.
Apparently, this is what Ford thinks Ontarians want. This is who he believes we are. This is how he hopes to win our support. Certainly, some will agree with these changes. But more likely, most won’t.
No question, though, after Ford, the term “Conservative party” will have a whole new meaning.
Christopher Hume is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @HumeChristopher