The flip side of Ford’s content-free campaign: Unpleasant surprises may be in store

OPINION: Premier-designate Doug Ford won the election despite a campaign devoid of policy details. That could come back to bite the Tories now that they’re nearly in government, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 25, 2018
Doug Ford at a podium that says, For the People
If Ford had wanted to warn voters that they shouldn’t be planning any major home renovations after his election, he had plenty of opportunities to do so. (Tijana Martin)

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Rick Browning, from Napanee, is angry.

“I voted for Ford because I thought he was the best of the bad lot. Do I regret it? Absolutely,” he says. “Kathleen Wynne’s not looking so bad right now.”

Browning is looking to replace the windows in his home and had nearly signed a deal with a contractor for triple-paned, high-efficiency windows that would have qualified under the Green Ontario Fund’s rebate program.

There’s just one problem: Premier-designate Doug Ford — whose party Browning voted for on June 7 — has announced that the cap-and-trade system that funded GreenON is not long for this world, and the agency that runs GreenON summarily announced earlier this week that no new applications will be accepted. After initially setting a deadline of August 31 for completed work, the Tories announced their intention to give contractors until October 31 to finish work (although they reiterated that the extension would apply only to existing applications).

Browning acknowledged that when he voted for Ford, he didn’t fully understand the links between the cap-and-trade program and the Green Ontario Fund.

“I missed the correlation between the carbon tax and GreenON — I missed that completely. I didn’t even know, when the salesman from the company offered me this discount, whether it was a federal or provincial program. I didn’t care.”

It’s tempting to say that voters like Browning are getting what they deserve, but progressives should hold the schadenfreude: the PCs did not, under Ford’s leadership, offer voters a detailed and clear plan of action for what they would do in office.

Instead, voters got hastily assembled press releases without anything remotely like a dollar figure or even a clear statement about what kinds of programs would be put at risk by the Tories’ ruthless hunt for “efficiencies.” If Ford had wanted to warn voters that they shouldn’t be planning any major home renovations after his election, he had plenty of opportunities to do so.

And voters like Browning may end up being a problem for the Tories going forward. The PCs won their thumping majority on a wave of anger and rejection of the Liberal government, but if there’s a groundswell of support for Tory policies beyond “make electricity cheaper somehow” and “lower taxes without cutting services, like you promised,” it’s very well hidden.

Starting next week, when they formally take over the levers of government, the Tories are going to have a real problem on their hands: the Liberals were historically unpopular by the time voters had to render a verdict on election day, but many of their policies weren’t. Indeed, the Liberal budget from the spring briefly seemed to make the pre-election period more competitive until voters remembered who had written the big-spending, big-deficit document. Liberal promises on child care, pharmacare, and transit spending were all extremely popular — it was the Liberals themselves that voters had tired of.

Now, Ford has promised substantial tax cuts — above and beyond the end of the cap-and-trade system — that will either (a) further burden a budget that’s already in deficit or (b) require substantial service cuts to bring the province’s books back into balance. So what’s going to give? The Tories spent years raising hell about the increase in the provincial debt under the Liberals, so big deficits are going to be awkward. But they’re not going to give up the tax cuts they promised.

That leaves service cuts. And to make cuts substantial enough to raise the billions of dollars Ford needs to find — without affecting front-line service in schools and hospitals — he will need to find lots and lots of small cuts.

(Well, technically, there’s also the possibility that the Tories will lose their promised challenge to the federal carbon tax and start receiving billions of dollars in federally imposed carbon revenues, but that would fill only part of the hole Ford’s promises have dug.)

Ford may have promised that there will be no layoffs under his tenure, but even if we don’t replay the labour unrest of the last Tory government, the fate of GreenON suggests that something else could emerge that would be difficult for him in a different way. Voters who planned major spending in their lives around the government they had at the moment — and were promised there would be no major changes to the level of service they receive — will be irritated by any serious efforts to alter its policies.

That prospect might not be enough to stop the Tories from making these kinds of cuts. It certainly wasn’t going to save cap and trade, something that, earlier this year, Ford and all of his leadership rivals unanimously promised to destroy. But public backlash to seemingly trivial cuts can sometimes surprise governments — as happened when the Liberals were caught flat-footed by mobilized parents opposed to cuts to autism therapy.

The Tories undoubtedly think they’ll do a better job than the Liberals did of running government. But changing the folks at the top doesn’t make the problems they need to solve any less complicated.

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