Progressives should take Doug Ford’s gambits on Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass seriously

OPINION: The government is pinning its re-election hopes on two new highways in the GTA — and reactions to its mini-budget speech hint at how the campaign might unfold
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 05, 2021
Premier Doug Ford makes a funding announcement in Windsor on October 18, 2021. (Geoff Robins/CP)

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The details of Thursday’s speech by finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy will be parsed in coming months. But there’s no doubt that the Tories want people talking about their pledge to get two new controversial highways built in the GTA: the 413, which would be an asphalt ribbon across York and Peel Regions, and the Bradford Bypass, also in York Region but connecting the 400 and 404 highways. At least as notable is how the Tories are framing the decision to build these highways.

“Mr. Speaker, this is the difference between a government that wants to get things done for everyday people versus an opposition who wants to block things from getting done on behalf of activists and special interests,” Bethlenfalvy told the legislature.

And to be sure nobody missed the point, the treasurer continued, “Today, we have two parties sitting across from me in this house who are competing for endorsements from downtown activists” — presumably referring to the official opposition New Democrats and the third-party Liberals. Poor Green leader Mike Schreiner is left out again, even though it’s likely he’d happily accept endorsements from the same downtown activists.

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Doug Ford’s history in politics doesn’t start in 2018, when he became the PC party leader. For those of us with slightly longer memories, this is all familiar: the premier and his late brother railed against downtown Toronto “elitists,” citing grievances large and small: the lack of good subway connections in the city’s suburbs, the modest expansion of bike lanes that preceded the 2010 municipal election. It won Rob the mayor’s office and Doug a ward seat but made for an exhausting four years at council. 

It wouldn’t be an election without a wedge issue, and the Tories clearly think they’ve found one that will work for them. But they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking this rhetoric is risk-free: Ford’s job approval and the Progressive Conservative party’s standing in the polls are not so secure right now that anyone in the government benches should be in a hurry to remind GTA voters about Classic DougTM, a guy the premier has mostly let voters forget about while dedicating himself to the role of pandemic-recovery statesman.

Which isn’t to say that the issue doesn’t also pose risks for the opposition parties; those can largely be summed up as “the driving public probably doesn’t hate the idea of new highways as much as progressive activists do.” To put my cards on the table, I also don’t think the 413 is a good or necessary thing for Ontario right now in 2021, but I’m also acutely conscious of the fact that, by most measures, I’m the weirdo: I don’t own a car, and that alone puts me in the minority both in the GTA and in Ontario: according to Statistics Canada, before the pandemic, just over 60 per cent of GTA commuters drove themselves to work in a car; one-quarter took transit. Those numbers are changing — drivers fell from nearly 70 per cent in 2011 — but motorists still make up a majority of voters, and the trick Rob and Doug Ford pulled off in 2010 was to make motorists think of themselves as a voting bloc, one whose interests were under threat and could be defended only by voting Ford.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath clearly caught Bethlenfalvy’s attacks on “downtown activists,” telling reporters afterwards it was “shameful that any government would try to pit one part of Ontario against another part of Ontario.” She also noted that the government isn’t actually committing new money to match its commitments to these highways and asked which communities will lose out while the Tories lavish their favoured ridings (and “developer buddies,” per Horwath) with these new projects.

That’s one possible avenue of attack. It’s notable that Liberal leader Steven Del Duca has seemingly tried to take a more nuanced position: opposing the 413 highway while remaining open to the Bradford Bypass and promising to spend the money that would otherwise have gone to the 413 on education instead. The fact that there’s no actual financial commitment to the 413 in the fall economic statement would make it a questionable promise on Del Duca’s part, but the government has done the Liberal leader a favour of sorts: the same FES that’s filled with fanfare for these new highways also cuts base education spending by $467 million dollars for this fiscal year, making the association between highway and education spending easier.

Maybe voters will appreciate Del Duca’s attempt at nuance. Maybe they’ll prefer Horwath’s more frontal assault. Maybe this is the Green party’s moment to shine — who knows. And there’s always the possibility that, however much the Tories want to talk about their grand highway plans, voters will seize on some issue beyond their control (we are, in case anyone forgot, still in a pandemic, and the government’s management of it is a live matter). But I’m not ready to dismiss the constituency that exists for new highways in this province, either.

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