Ontario’s political centre may have collapsed, but progressive values remain

Posted on June 5, 2018 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
June 4, 2018.   By

There’s a paradox at the heart of this week’s Ontario election.

The political centre of this traditionally centrist province has evaporated, at least for now. With the collapse of the Liberals’ hope for victory, the only parties with a realistic chance of forming government are campaigning from the populist right and the social democratic left. There’s no middle option.

Yet there’s scant evidence that, as a society, Ontario is much more polarized than before. We’ve seen outbreaks of extremist opinion, but no mass movements to the far right or the hard left.

Ontarians still hew to centrist values when it comes to the big issues — the role of government, health care, immigration and so on. Whichever government is elected on Thursday will ignore that at its peril. It should not confuse an electoral victory with a mandate for radical change.

Of course, it’s worrisome enough that the province may soon be run by a Progressive Conservative government led by a premier Doug Ford. His track record, his rhetoric and his party’s program (such as it is) poses a threat to the progressive social legacy built up over decades in Ontario under governments of all political colourations.

We believe voters should make sure that doesn’t happen and, as we wrote on Saturday, in most ridings that means backing Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats.

The danger of a Ford government is real. If the PCs gain power, and especially if they win a majority, Ford can do real damage.

But if Ford does win (and that’s far from certain) it won’t be because he’s riding to power on an angry wave of populist resentment crying out for a profound restructuring of government and the social order.

Ontarians are clearly fed up with the Liberals after 15 years and want a change at Queen’s Park. But they aren’t questioning the fundamental values that Ontarians (and indeed Canadians as a whole) have shared for decades, including a robust role for government in assuring the economic and social well-being of all citizens. What we’re seeing in Ontario is essentially an electoral phenomenon, rather than a big social change.

Under our voting system the PCs could form a majority government with as little as 37 or 38 per cent of the vote. They might even get a majority while winning fewer votes than the NDP, say the experts.

That’s because our system is designed to produce majority governments even when no party gets most of the votes. That’s its strength, and its weakness as well. It emphasizes stability over a fair representation of public opinion.

As a result, Ontarians may well end up with a majority Ford government after 60 per cent of them have cast votes for parties that support progressive values — Liberal, NDP or Green.

It would be much more worrisome if we were witnessing a deeper shift in public priorities and values. That would be true if the rise of Ford-style populism was accompanied, for example, by a drift away from faith in public health care and public education, or by a significant rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.

That’s the hallmark of U.S.-style populism under Donald Trump, and it’s easy to draw parallels between Ford and the American president. Both are rich guys offering simplistic solutions and lashing out at so-called “elites.”

But xenophobia à la Trump hasn’t been a significant part of the Ford campaign, and for very good reasons. As pollster Michael Adams of Environics has pointed out, 40 per cent of the country is made up of immigrants and first-generation Canadians — and the number is even higher in Ontario and especially the Toronto area, where they are a majority. It would be political idiocy for a major party leader to demonize immigrants here.

Still, there is real resentment among those left behind by economic and technological change. Both the PCs and NDP are, in their own ways, capitalizing on that anger. But it doesn’t run as deep as in some parts of the U.S., where rustbelt communities have been left to rot for generations with little government help. Ontario’s social safety net is much more robust and has been strengthened under the Liberals, both provincial and federal.

The result of all this is that we haven’t joined the U.S. in a slide toward bitter, angry populism of the Trump variety. As Adams documented last year in his book Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit, Canadians (very much including Ontarians) have moved significantly away from Americans politically over the past decade or so. We’ve actually become more wedded to values of equality, openness and social justice, just as the U.S. turned its back on those same values.

The bottom line? No one should confuse the apparent collapse of Ontario’s political centre (or simply of the Liberal party in a single electoral cycle) with a fundamental shift in the province’s social and political values. This is still a province that puts a high premium on social solidarity, civil political discourse, and a robust role for government. It’s bred in the bone.

If Ford’s PCs do manage to win and interpret their electoral majority as a mandate to turn their back on Ontario’s bedrock progressive tradition, they will quickly discover that they’ve made a fundamental mistake.


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