Doug Ford: Ontario’s Populist

June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments

Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario.  Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say.  The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid.  Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message.  The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.

It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country.  And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America.  And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.

Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments.  But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have.  Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole.  The reasons for this are for another post.

The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.

But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past.  It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada.  Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn.  But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.

Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995.  In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990.  Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light.  Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution.  Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics.  This went about as well as you’d imagine.

Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce.  He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders.  Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.

Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario.  The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000.  There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system.  Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died.  Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.

And then there was Kimberly Rogers.  Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud.  Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school.  This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year.  Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest.  And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000.  She was also pregnant at the time.  Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree.  The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity.  She committed suicide in August 2001.

An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications.  Rogers had the first, but not the other two.  And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went.  And this was due to Harris’ reforms.  Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.

Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices.  The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city.  Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.

But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter.  Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone.  He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto.  During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic).  And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics.  Lastman told a reporter:

What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.

Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother.  Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism.  He wasn’t qualified for the job.  But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning.  The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse.  He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine.  He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him.  And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members.     Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.

So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as.  He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.

Equalization Payments in Canada

July 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

Over the weekend on Twitter, I was caught up in a discussion with an Albertan who didn’t believe that the province, along with British Columbia, is forecast to lead Canada in economic growth.

She argued that the province is still hurting, that big American gas companies had pulled out, and that people were leaving Alberta.  Indeed, in June, Alberta’s unemployment rate was 7.4%, but even then, that was an improvement of 0.4% from May.  But, economic growth does not mean that one can necessarily see the signs of a booming economy.  Alberta’s economy, however, shows signs of recovery, and this 2.9% economic growth, as well as a decline in unemployment rates, shows that.

She also expressed a pretty common bitterness from Albertans about Equalization payments in Canada.  These payments might be the most mis-understood aspect of Canadian federalism.  The common belief in Alberta, which is usually a ‘have’ province (meaning it doesn’t receive equalization payments), is that its money, from oil and gas and everything else, is taken from it and given to the ‘have-not’ provinces (those who receive equalization payments).  This is made all the more galling to Albertans because Quebec is the greatest recipient of equalization payments.

This argument, though, is based on a fundamental mis-understanding of how equalization payments work in Canada.  Equalization payments date back to Canadian Confederation in 1867, as most taxation powers accrued to the federal government.  The formal system of equalization payments dates from 1957, largely to help the Atlantic provinces.  At that time, the two wealthiest provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, were the only two ‘have’ provinces.  And this formal system was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982. Section 36, subsection (2) of the Constitution Act reads:

Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

The general idea behind equalization payments is, of course, that there are economic disparities across the nation.  There is any number of reasons for these disparities, which are calculated on a provincial level.  These can include the geographic size of a province, population, the physical geography, or economic activity.

Quebec is a traditional ‘have not’, which seems incongruous with the size and economy of the province.  Montreal, after a generation-long economic decline from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, has more or less recovered.  If Quebec were a nation of its own (as separatists desire), it would be the 44th largest economy in the world, just behind Norway. It contributes 19.65% of Canada’s GDP.  But Quebec’s economy is marked by massive inequalities.  This is true in terms of Montreal versus much of the rest of the province.  But it is also true within Montreal itself.  Montreal is home to both the richest neighbourhood in the nation, as well as two of the poorest.  Westmount has a median family income of $220,578.  But Downtown Montreal ($32,841) and Parc Ex ($34,211) are the fourth and fifth poorest, respectively, in Canada.

The formula by which equalization payments are made is based on averages across the country.  Here, we’re talking about taxation rates and revenue-generation, based on the national averages of Canada.  Provinces that fall below these averages are ‘have not’ provinces.  Those who fall above it are ‘have’ provinces.  The three wealthiest provinces are usually Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta.  But all three of these provinces have fallen into ‘have not’ status at various points. In 2017-18, in order of amounts received, the have-nots are: Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island.  Quebec, it should be noted, will receive more than the other ‘have-nots’ combined.  The ‘have’ provinces this year are Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Saskatchewan.

The equalization payments, though, are not a case of taking money from Alberta to pay for Quebec’s social programs.  The funds are not based on how much one province pays for its health care system, or for a universal child care system, or cheap tuition at the province’s universities (Quebec has both universal child care and cheap tuition for in-province students).  Rather, the funds come out of the same general revenue stream that Ottawa has to fund ALL of its programmes and services.  And, each and every Canadian contributes to this revenue stream.  Thus, the fine people of Westmount contribute more to equalization payments (and general revenue) than the middle-class residents of suburban Calgary, or a person in a lower income bracket in Saskatchewan.  And, because there are more Quebecers than there are Albertans, Quebec actually contributes more to the equalization payment scheme.

It is not just angry Albertans who believe they are getting hosed by the federal government.  Many Quebecers will rail against their province’s funding priorities and point to the province’s status as a ‘have not’ as to why it should not have these programmes.  Both positions are factually wrong, and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Canada’s equalization payments.

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