There was a moment in the Ontario election campaign when voters were telling pollsters they were seriously concerned about supporting Doug Ford for Premier. Ford has been a polarizing figure in Toronto City politics and has no history on the provincial scene, and is connected in many people’s mind with his brother, who was the most well known municipal politician in North America for a time, for all the wrong reasons.
Doug Ford, or his party handlers, came up with a two pronged attack. They brought out the Tory team, other MPPs and candidates who have more solid reputations, to temper the idea that it is “Ford Nation” Ontario was being asked to buy into. And, picking up on the fact it was the NDP who was their foe, they started to do some red bashing.
Ford began talking about how afraid he was of an NDP, anti-business government, said that ‘thousands’ of business people had told him they would pack up their bags and leave Ontario if Horwath were elected. Aside from the fact that the United States is not exactly rolling out the red carpet for Canadians or Canadian businesses these days (although the election took place before Prime Minster Trudeau earned his “special place in hell” in the words of one Donald Trump’s advisors/enablers.
Most business people will not pack up and move if an election does not go their way, even if a 1% increase in business taxes is in the cards. If they are making money, have a good work force and access to markets, they are unlikely to take the chance on moving, especially to another country.
Even though Ford’s was likely afraid more of losing the election than he was of the impact of an NDP government, he was able to raise doubt in the minds of voters.
Before the Conservative Party began displaying its internal strife to the public a few months ago, voters were ready to follow a set pattern. The Liberals were a spent force, and Ontarians like to try the right when they get sick of the left, and besides they like Queen’s Park to be blue when Parliament Hill goes red.
What Doug Ford managed to do was control the ballot box question without revealing how he was planning to fix the healthcare system, keep all the rural schools open, cut taxes and trim the fat without laying any provincial employees off. Oh, and according to our own MPP Randy Hillier, Ford Nation will also mean stable, improved funding for municipalities.
Looking at the new government from the point of view of rural municipal politics, which I have done ever since the waning days of the last Conservative regime under Mike Harris, I have to wonder where things will be going.
I agree, as Randy Hillier has pointed out often enough, that the Liberal government at Queen’s Park has had an urban bias. There has been a lack of interest in the struggle for survival in rural Ontario, a gutting of ministries such as the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Rural Affairs, the former being combined with forestry and the latter with agriculture, demonstrating a sense that rural Ontario is about what can be extracted from it rather than who lives here and how they are getting along. This is not a conspiracy or anything, just consistency with the global phenomenon of urbanisation. The Conservatives, with their unflinching rural support base, promise to change that tone.
However, under the Liberals there has been a steady reform of the untenable financial reality that was created by the Mike Harris Conservatives, who created the modern Ontario municipality through forced amalgamation in the 1990’s. By the time Ernie Eves, Harris’ successor, was defeated in the same kind of landlslide that greeted soon to be former Premier Kathleen Wynne last week, municipalities were faced with a tax burden for roads and bridges, paramedic services, social services, and much more, as the result of downloaded administrative and financial responsibilities. While the Liberals did not reverse-course in any way, as far as administrative responsibility goes, they have alleviated the financial burden in a substantial way, steadily, and over time.
Transfer payments have increased and become more transparent than they were. Cost sharing arrangements have improved as well over time. We still live in a Harris universe in Ontario municipalities, but the edge has been softened, quite a bit.
One of the things we will have to watch over the next 12 to 24 months, as the Conservative agenda takes shape, is if they repeat history. Will they do as Harris did, transfer the tax burden onto the municipal tax base in order to keep their own budget from sliding deeper into deficit. All so they can claim to be cutting taxes while at the same time increasing spending on healthcare and education.
One of the problems with this is that municipal taxes are already a lot higher in 2018 than they were in 1998. Waterfront taxes have shot up year after year and even off water properties have doubled or tripled over that time. This hits rural people hard because incomes are static and the number seniors living on a fixed income are higher than the provincial average. If downloading costs to municipalities is a fiscal tool that Ford Nation chooses to use, it will be an attack on rural Ontario perpetrated by a government that said it was going to be responsive to our needs.