The guardians of respectable opinion forecast that Doug Ford would never become Ontario’s Premier. Now that he has, they are suggesting his reign might be orderly and painless.
While agreeing with his basic agenda, the Globe & Mail is crossing its fingers that Ford “moves slowly on the public-service layoffs and program cuts…to avoid strikes and social discord.”
It’s wishful thinking on every count. All indications point to Ford moving quickly and ruthlessly. He will try to govern through the “retroactive consensus” favoured by his right-wing provincial predecessors — ramming through policies, then hoping the demoralization and demobilization of the populace can be passed off as political approval.
If we want to derail his agenda, we will have to shake off the shock and ensure our opposition grows equally fast.
The first challenge will be contending with the mainstream media’s impulse to fixate on Ford’s clownish sideshow. A loud movement of opposition can redirect their attention to where it belongs: the impact of his policies.
During the campaign, Ford preached that “help is on the way” — but what’s coming now is a whole lot of hurt. To make up for the billions of dollars he plans to give away through corporate tax cuts and a scrapped cap-and-trade program, Ford is about to embark on a slash-and-burn offensive.
With a Tory transition team stacked full of corporate executives, lobbyists, and career politicians – not a “little guy” in sight – it’s unsurprising that Bay Street is signalling its pleasure: “[Ford’s] mandate sets up a clear tack away from higher taxes and big program spending, to tax relief, leaner government and competitiveness,” announced one bank economist’s missive.
His promise of dollar beer aside, the vast majority of Ontarians will be paying a steeper cost across every aspect of their lives: in more crowded classrooms and hospitals, in diminished social assistance, in less available public transit and housing, in more aggressive policing of racialized communities, and in an assault on the environment. “Everything’s going out for bid”: that’s Ford giving notice about a privatization spree. On the immediate chopping block appear to be the new sex-ed curriculum, supervised-injection sites, and the minimum wage increase — all of which will make Ontarians less safe, healthy and secure. So much for a “government for the people.”
At every turn, Ford will have to be reminded that this mandate for austerity was never advertised and barely endorsed: the hundred percent of legislative power he will enjoy is based, in our unreformed electoral system, on merely 40 percent of actual voters and 23 percent of eligible ones.
As Ontarians search for models for their resistance, they have inspiring and powerful precedents in their own recent history. When Tory premier Mike Harris came to power in 1995 – unleashing the kind of multi-billion dollar cuts to vital programs and services that we can expect under Ford – a grassroots coalition kickstarted protests as soon as he took office.
They built up toward Days of Action – one-day, one-city general strikes which spread across the province. Thousands spilled out of their workplaces and marched in the streets, including 350,000 people in Toronto. The movement damaged the popularity of Harris and forced him to back off certain policies, historian Doug Nesbitt writes. But when the labour movement’s official leadership undermined its momentum and the protests ended, his popularity rebounded.
It will take nothing less than this sort of movement – and the extensive education and face-to-face organizing required to build it – to precipitate a crisis for Ford. He won the election because he was able to connect with people angry and despairing at an economic order rigged against their interests. Such a mass movement can clarify that his agenda won’t help them — it will only compound their pain.
Pundits are suggesting the Liberal collapse occurred because they moved “too far to the left.” That’s nonsense, labour activists point out. When pushed by movements, they did indeed bring in some reforms worth defending, like the $15 minimum wage. But by finishing the privatization of Hydro started by the Tories, presiding over exploding inequality, and not reversing the decimation of the social safety net of the Harris years, the Liberals laid the foundation for Ford’s ascent.
They have laid them as much for a rise of the left, which must now forge a populist alternative to shift Ford’s support from under him. An alternative that takes on the elite not with hollow potshots about downtown snobs, but with redistributive policies that simultaneously combat inequality, racism, and climate change. Instead of releasing such an alternative at election time, the NDP should campaign on it forthrightly year-round. This would prove they’ve learned an essential lesson: if the left can’t respond effectively to the failures of neoliberal centrism, an ugly right will triumph.
Can it be done? I witnessed what might be possible when I spent a day on the campaign trail of community organizer and NDP candidate Joel Harden in Ottawa’s centre-town riding.
Harden’s bustling office was ringed with posters featuring positions he unapologetically promoted: the rights of workers, LGBTQI and Indigenous peoples; a sanctuary province that would ensure equal access to services for refugees; massive investment in good green jobs, public transit and more liveable communities; and a rapid transition off fossil fuels envisioned in the Leap Manifesto. The buttons pinned on shirts didn’t reproduce Andrea Horwath’s tepid slogan of “Change for the Better.” They read: “Be Bold.” Such a progressive vision could just as well have addressed the concerns in the suburban regions almost entirely swept by the Tories: painful commutes, precarious work, paltry community services.
Forget the airbrushed, inoffensive politics of many past NDP campaigns: this is what brought out hundreds of energized volunteers. These volunteers were then trained for a different kind of organizing: as they knocked on 70,000 doors over eight months, they didn’t merely check-off existing support on their clipboards — the method the NDP has mostly relied on for decades. Inspired by the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, they engaged in informed discussions about issues, debunking both the Tory’s fake populism and the Liberal’s elite-friendly politics. Harden underlined the campaign’s concern for peoples’ everyday struggles by handing out his personal cell-phone number.
The right-wing Sun newspaper splashed his face on its cover, trying to depict him as a fringe, radical candidate. But the combination of ambitious social outlook and empowered grassroots organizing wasn’t an electoral liability — it was the route to success. Harden resoundingly defeated a popular Liberal cabinet minister.
For those hoping for a deeper revitalization of the NDP’s prospects, this much is clear: if this model of politics had been practiced across the province, they might have won the election.
A new populism of the left will require weaving together a bold, positive vision with street protest, workplace organizing, and a more open and dynamic NDP — forging closer links between the party and movements like the Fight for $15 and Fairness, Black Lives Matter, and Idle No More. The first opportunity is a mass rally on June 16th. While the pundit and political class will no doubt urge caution – advising against “strikes and social discord” above all else – those about to start marching surely know better.
- True North
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