In the time of Trump, Ontario’s Tories have chosen Doug Ford to lead a populist revolt in Canada’s biggest province, starting in its biggest city.
After losing the last four elections, the Progressive Conservatives are heading into the next campaign convinced they can win on June 7 with a wild-card candidate — armed with the same powerful message that propelled Donald Trump’s triumphant run to the U.S. presidency.
Don’t rule out Premier Ford.
The party can truly be said to be in his thrall. Ford set the agenda for the campaign, goading his rivals into abandoning attempts by the PC caucus to remake themselves as a modern party — no longer reconciled to a modernized sex education curriculum or a future-minded approach to carbon pricing to fight global warming.
Assuming that the Russians didn’t hack the PC leadership race, but are merely exercising mind control over Tory bots from afar, Ford’s surprisingly strong finish is a powerful protest vote that amounts to a stunning declaration of war by the PCs against the established order — inside and outside their own party and province.
Either way, the spirit of Trump has crossed back across the border into Ontario, whence the whirlwind originated all those years ago with little brother Rob Ford.
It could presage a similar surprise victory in the spring election, given the party’s impregnable hold across rural Ontario — and the enduring strength of “Ford Nation” in urban and suburban pockets of the province. Few thought Ford could come from nowhere to take over the PC party, and perhaps fewer can fathom him as Ontario’s next premier, but like Trump, the Ford brothers do best when blessed with weak or weakened opponents.
Now, the PC party that has just rendered judgment on the candidates is itself about to be judged — along with its new leader — by voters across the province. Despite the energizing effect of any leadership race, and the extra burst of publicity, the real scrutiny is about to get infinitely more intense.
Mere months before the election, the province’s official Opposition sacrificed its leader in a scandal over sexual misconduct allegations; surrendered its official campaign platform in a policy panic; revealed the “rot” and internal wrongdoing in its nominations and machinations; and, finally, bungled the vote count virtually from start to finish, and ultimately in the aftermath.
Today, the PCs are seeking a mandate to take over the reins of government — not so much on their supposed strength, but on the presumed fatigue of the incumbent Liberal government led by an unpopular Premier Kathleen Wynne. For all the excitement that arises with any new leader, Ford now presents himself to the province as a remarkably empty vessel — with little to say on coherent policy, offering not so much renewal as reversal on key policies that characterize a modern province.
Instead, Ford is casting himself as a fearless fighter for the underdog and against imaginary elites, rather like Trump on the stump.
The key to Ford’s surprisingly strong showing may have been the paltry appeal of his PC opponents. He was up against two-time leadership loser Christine Elliott, whom many had thought better suited in temperament and tenor, ability and likability — just not winnability.
Much like Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election, Elliott showed herself once again to be an uninspiring politician, lacking the common touch or energizing rhetoric to compete with Ford’s fire-breathing populism. Sensing her weakness, Ford didn’t hesitate to take on Elliott in campaign debates, pointing out her own improbable policy contortions and contradictions.
Nor did the other candidates (notably Caroline Mulroney) rise above the noise to inspire frustrated Tories. Instead, they mostly gravitated — over and over again — to the core message that they have the power to turn back the clock, whether on a sex education curriculum or a carbon pricing system. The obsession with sex and carbon was a proxy for serious policy pronouncements about the province’s economic and social challenges.
Confused by what happened at the Ontario PC leadership convention? Here’s how the Tories pick their leaders
A never-ending Tory story: Six tumultuous weeks in Ontario PC party
The difference between this leadership campaign and the upcoming election campaign is that Ford cannot count on the same kind of policy emptiness and equivocation he encountered among his Tory rivals when he faces off against Wynne. The Tory candidates cannibalized their platform — egged on by Ford — and looked back into the past; by contrast, the governing Liberals have cobbled together a coherent campaign package anchored on pharmacare and a $15 minimum wage that are proving popular with voters.
But the biggest challenge for Ford may come not from the Liberals but from Tories themselves, for they are in greater disarray and disunity than at any time in recent memory. Elliott has a history of abandoning the party, as she did after losing to Patrick Brown in 2015. And MPPs in the Tory caucus have thinly disguised contempt for Ford’s personality and policy offerings. Some candidates may not run again, and some MPPs will be biding their time, waiting for Ford to falter before going through yet another leadership campaign to right the wrongs of the party’s rightward drift.
Martin Regg Cohn’s political column normally appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. [email protected], Twitter: @reggcohn