This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on June 8, 2018.
In the 1993 federal election campaign, prime minister Kim Campbell made a quip that set off gusts of indignation and, arguably, contributed to the crushing loss of her Progressive Conservative party. An election campaign, Ms. Campbell said, is no time to discuss serious issues.
A quarter-century later, that glib comment seems more like a new political mantra.
Ontario has just elected a Progressive Conservative Leader who waited until the last days of the campaign to release a mash-up of proposed initiatives with no costs attached. The rival NDP blandly admitted to a $1.4-billion math mistake in its fiscal plan. And without signalling, the Liberals veered sharply from the middle lane to the left.
To be clear, Mr. Ford did not lack the duct tape and paper clips required to cobble together a traditional political platform. Rather, the lack of platform was his platform, and his snub of policy was part of his pitch. Voters had no problem handing Mr. Ford and his PCs a solid majority nonetheless.
For what it’s worth, this is by no means an anomaly.
The victory of Mr. Ford and his party means that Ontario voters have now formally joined the ranks of others around the world who live in the era of post-platform politics and post-policy government.
Chronic volatility resulting from global markets and geopolitical jolts has led to widespread acceptance that traditional platforms – and the partisan policies upon which they rest – are largely irrelevant. At the same time, traditional party lines have blurred, allowing greater latitude to hunt and gather the bits that seem to fit the prevailing circumstances. After all, there is little to be gained from publicly committing to a resolute course of action that could be overturned by sudden unforeseeable events. As boxer Mike Tyson famously noted: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Mr. Ford is one of a new breed of modern political leaders who wins support less for his experience or innovative ideas than for his ability to convincingly package and sell a customized mix and match of ideologies. He has never previously been an MPP, nor does he have deep roots in the provincial party he leads. But his familiarity with business and with the backrooms of politics may prove to be a strength.
Freed of a solid platform or clear policy commitments to constrain his new government, Mr. Ford stands to gain momentum quickly. For example, the Tories have inherited one of the strongest provincial economies in Canada, making a Conservative inclination to step out of the way the most positive approach.
Despite being absent from power for 15 years, the Conservatives still have the potential for a strong cabinet featuring the likes of long-time MPP and former leadership candidate Christine Elliott; experienced businessmen Peter Bethlenfalvy and Rod Phillips; Caroline Mulroney, and such seasoned MPPs as former interim leader Vic Fedeli.
A roster of talented people is one thing, but getting them all to row in the same direction is quite another. The Conservative caucus is notoriously fractious – which is one of the reasons Mr. Ford was successful in the leadership race.
That means his blunt practicality and his lack of Tory party history could be helpful in overcoming years of squabbling and back-bench back-biting. He has a proven ability to bring remarkably diverse factions from different cultural, ethnic and religious communities together in the Ford Nation tent – and to hold their loyalty.
His success in that regard has direct implications at the federal government level, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suddenly faces a vocal critic rather than a staunch ally running Canada’s largest province. The Conservatives’ thumping 76-seat majority, furthermore, suggests that Ontario isn’t feeling particularly Liberal-friendly with a federal election on the books for October, 2019.
The Conservative victory also suggests that the big tent of Ford Nation is now sheltering many of the multicultural votes upon which the Liberals have long depended. Many first-generation Canadians have come from countries where the privilege of debating a platform and related policies is not as deeply ingrained as part of the political tradition.
The same uncertainty extends to the City of Toronto, which has a politically and financially symbiotic relationship with Queen’s Park. The absence of a clear platform of municipal spending and support could make life challenging for the mayor facing re-election in the fall.
On Thursday, Ontario residents voted resoundingly in favour of change. They got what they wanted and now that the political campaigning is over, maybe the discussion of serious issues can begin. Or not.
Deirdre McMurdy is a principal at Navigator Ltd.