Ford vs. Ford: Will the automaker’s investment in electric cars sway a premier who hates them?

OPINION: The Tories made it clear early on that they have no great love for electric cars. Perhaps a billion-dollar investment will change their mind
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 29, 2020
Ford has announced a $2 billion deal with its union to build five new electric-car models at its Oakville plant. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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One of the first things Doug Ford did after becoming premier in 2018 was dispose of a number of policies, introduced by his Liberal predecessors, that had been aimed at encouraging the adoption of electric cars in Ontario. His government eliminated a subsidy for EV buyers and deleted a section of the provincial building code that would have required that any new home parking garage have a “rough-in” for a vehicle charger.

The Liberal love affair with electric cars did have its questionable aspects — for example, Tesla’s hiring of a Liberal staffer just before the company’s cars suddenly qualified for a provincial subsidy. Nevertheless! In the heady, early, everything-Liberal-must-go days of the Ford regime, the fact that the Liberals had been for EVs meant that the Tories were going to be against them.

Two years later, the situation has become more complicated thanks to that rarest of things in 2020: good news. Ford-the-car-company has announced a $2 billion deal with its union (sweetened somewhat by $500 million in federal and provincial cash) to build five new electric-car models at its Oakville plant. Federal and provincial conservatives have mocked the prospect of electric vehicles displacing conventional pickup trucks and SUVs in the domestic and global market, but this is one of Ontario’s biggest industrial employers betting big on electric cars — and betting on building them here.

This is undeniably good political news for the federal Liberals, whose value proposition to Canadians for the last six years has been that environmental sustainability and middle-class prosperity are the 21st-century version of peanut butter and jelly: two great tastes that taste great together.

It’s also good news for autoworkers, and, arguably, for the environment: if those electric cars get bought in Canada as well as made here, they’ll do more of the work of lowering the country’s carbon-dioxide emissions: since the majority of Canada’s drivers live in provinces with very clean electricity grids, electric cars will have dramatically lower emissions than their gasoline-powered cousins.

The political question for Ontario is whether the Tories can find their way to seeing it as good news for them, too. It’s worth emphasizing here that Tory hostility to electric cars hasn’t been all-encompassing: back in pre-COVID-19 times, all parties at Queen’s Park did support a private member’s bill, originally proposed by Paul Calandra (then a backbencher, now government house leader), that made it a provincial offence to hog a charging space when not actually charging an EV.

(Calandra was promoted to cabinet after introducing Bill 123, the Reserved Parking for Electric Vehicle Charging Act; under the rules at Queen’s Park, he lost the ability to move private- members’ business forward, so his bill was taken up instead by his Tory colleague MPP Lorne Coe and Green MPP Mike Schreiner.)

In the debate for Bill 123, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns said that he’d vote for it, with some reservations (he didn’t want to be seen as excusing the Tories’ prior hostility to EVs), but offered a prescient piece of advice for the government and all MPPs.

“If we’re going to have an auto industry in this province in the decades to come, we need to be encouraging the purchase of electric vehicles here, so that we have an interest on the part of manufacturers to make them here,” Tabuns said during the second-reading debate.

Encouraging electric-car adoption can take many forms, and not all of them need to cost a ton of money — though it’s important to state clearly here that, even as the Tories dismissed consumer subsidies for EVs as a payout for virtue-signalling latte-sippers, Ontario’s share of that $500 million in government cash for Ford is still real money that, uh, will subsidize the cost of electric cars.

The bigger barrier to support for electric cars in this province has been the Tories’ attitude. Faced with the prospect of supporting thousands of autoworker jobs (in a riding held by a Tory MPP, no less), they shouldn’t find it difficult to change their minds.

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