The triumph of Doug Ford

Paul Wells: Governing is hard. Delivering a new era when you actually weren’t really sure what the new era was going to look like is still harder.
Doug Ford greets supporters after his victory is announced. (Photograph by Chris Donovan)

Oh, calm down. I picked the headline to freak people out. But there’s something to it: There weren’t a lot of closing-week polls that had the Progressive Conservatives edging over 40 per cent, and there sure weren’t a lot putting the NDP down under 34 per cent. Within a lot of margins of error in both cases, and in both cases I don’t think it’s polling error that counts so much as the fact that polls told us the story at the beginning of the week, whereas the story at the end of the week is that people who liked Ford liked him enough to actually show up. And people who didn’t weren’t sure what to do.

So it was Ford, speaking from the squat Etobicoke convention centre that must get about a third of its business from events he rents, who looked genuinely happy as he addressed his supporters on Thursday night. Andrea Horwath, at Hamilton’s convention centre, delivered an oddly triumphant text, but she couldn’t force any real enthusiasm for her delivery. Which is fair. He will lead the first Progressive Conservative government elected in the 21st century. She fell well short, with a caucus just over half the size of his.

In the early going, Ford’s biggest problems won’t come from the NDP MPPs opposite, or from public opinion. It’ll come from his own big mouth, which promised a long series of specific revenue-cutting measures with no compensating specific spending cuts. It’s not even obvious he can deliver beer at a dollar, let alone some of his more ambitious plans. He demonstrated that a costed, balanced platform isn’t something you need to get elected, but he may soon find it would have been handy as a guide for governing. He’ll be helped by some competent MPPs, such as Rod Phillips and Caroline Mulroney, but every time circumstances require hard choices, they’ll all be reminded that his instincts aren’t theirs. Simply governing is hard. Delivering a new era when you actually weren’t really sure what the new era was going to look like is still harder.

READ: What Doug Ford is promising for Ontario

But for quite some time, life for Ford won’t be nearly enough of a sack of woe to please his opponents. His red-Tory cabinet will prove surprisingly ready to sign up for cuts if the new premier wants cuts, just as red Tories in Mike Harris’s 1990s cabinet had no problem sticking with him. A quarter of his candidates faced assorted investigations before the vote; many of those will carry forward and some will cause untold political hassle, but these things tend to unspool over many months. Comparisons between Ford and Donald Trump are overdrawn, but I do feel the need to say to Ford detractors what more Trump opponents should have understood from the outset: the new guy will be around for quite a while.

Which means he won’t just be the occasional recipient of hard choices, he will sometimes be the agent of their delivery. Paging Justin Trudeau: it is now the governments of Saskatchewan and Ontario that oppose your carbon tax, with Alberta very likely to join them in the new year. And more generally, the McGuinty Liberal way of doing things, which was airlifted pretty much intact to Ottawa in the fall of 2015, turns out not to have eternal appeal. The anesthetizing effect of vast clouds of taxpayer dollars is not effective forever, and the inevitable boondoggles that line such clouds tend to wear away at voters’ patience. The last time I sat in Kathleen Wynne’s office, she had a big photo of Justin Trudeau on one wall. From here it looks, not quite like an omen, but certainly like a warning.