Canada’s failed populist: A cautionary tale

The downfall of Ontario’s provincial premier, Doug Ford, is a prime example of what happens when populism takes power.

Doug Ford Reuters
Last month, a new poll revealed that approval ratings for Conservative Ontario provincial premier Doug Ford have dropped to just 29 percent [Reuters]

With apologies to the Roman poet, Virgil, his cautionary proverb – as befits the times – requires updating: Beware populists bearing gifts.

In the Canadian political context, the “populist” who offered up a Trojan Horse filled with seemingly appetising, but simple-minded promises to hoodwink the gullible, is Ontario provincial premier, Doug Ford. 

More than a year ago, the decal salesman and former city councillor, rode a tsunami of voter disaffection with a spent, cavalier and corruption-prone Liberal administration to an impressive victory on June 7, 2018.

Ford’s mantra at the time – “For the People” – fit neatly, of course, on a bumper sticker. Its proletarian meaning was intended, I suppose, to reflect Ford’s antipathy towards the “elite vested interests” and his sympathy for the forgotten, hardworking everyman and everywoman. 

That Ford was a multimillionaire didn’t quite fit the “I’m with the little guy and gal” narrative. So, with a thin, perpetual smile fixed on his face, Ford promised to deliver a buck-a-beer and the usual, recycled bromides idea-free libertarians consider the equivalent of “governing”. 

The afterglow of Ford’s ascendancy as perhaps the second-most powerful politician in Canada lasted just over a nanosecond. Then, Ford’s Trojan Horse opened to reveal a vessel populated by a band of duplicitous “populists” who, like their slogan-spouting leader, feigned affinity for the aforementioned little guy and gal before they promptly punished all those little guys and gals.

Today, the premier who, not too long ago, claimed to be philosophically among, and for the people, hides from them to avoid being booed because of the damage he and his equally “populist” cabinet ministers have inflicted upon them.

Beyond the debilitating cuts to education, healthcare, libraries, child protection agencies and a panoply of other critical social and environmental policies and services, Ford’s signature act of malevolence was axing a programme of publicly funded care for autistic children, ordering families to, in effect, wait in line to get a paltry lump sum cheque to defray the staggering costs associated with their complex care.

The populist response to the “populist’s” destructive agenda was plain and visceral. Here is a video of Ford being introduced at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square where hundreds of thousands of those little guys and gals gathered to celebrate the city’s NBA champions, the Raptors. 

The long, guttural cacophony of boos was not only a humiliating repudiation of Ford, but, more particularly, of the cynical, even sinister, manner he and his Conservative acolytes have methodically gone about destroying, eliminating, gutting and erasing the help and support the province has historically furnished to all those little guys and gals to make life a little fuller, healthier and more promising.

In a rare, astonishing rebuke, hundreds of kids and, no doubt, their “elitist, out-of-touch” parents, booed Ford at the opening ceremonies of the Ontario Special Olympics. 

As political barometers go, getting booed by Special Olympians is generally accepted among the commentariat – elitist or not – to be a CN Tower-sized sign that you are doing lots of bad stuff to lots of good people. 

Even the Ford-fawning, right-wing press has had to acknowledge those miffed Special Olympians were openly expressing the privately-held boos of most Ontarians. A poll provided “exclusively” to the Toronto Sun showed that as of mid-June, Mr Stop-the-Gravy-Train’s approval rating sat at a likely career-ending 29 percent.

So, what’s a populist to do when all those little guys and gals turn on you so loudly and publicly in polls or at big, we-are-family-like celebrations?

Well, Ford cancelled the traditional July 1 Canada Day festivities at Queen’s Park, home to the provincial legislature where he and his “populist” caucus meet, it turns out, to stick it to those hardworking little guys and gals without providing the “forgotten” folk yet another opportunity to get together to boo them – this time, on their front lawn.

To add insult to the booing, Ford’s ex-chief-of-staff, Dean French, was discovered by a pack of inquisitive, elitist reporters to have appointed – apparently, without his populist boss’s knowledge or consent – close friends to handsomely-paid jobs in non-elitist cities like New York and London. 

French allegedly gifted a 26-year-old, one-time lacrosse player, Tyler Albrecht, the job of Ontario’s trade representative in New York. Albrecht’s principal qualification for the resurrected position paying $165,000: he played lacrosse with French’s son. French also allegedly anointed Taylor Shields, his wife’s cousin, the province’s trade agent in London, England, with a salary of $185,000.

Once the details of these “secret” appointments made it to the press, Ford, like any rank “populist”, tried to staunch the PR bleeding by amputating French. It didn’t work. 

A new survey found that 57 percent of Ontarians believe that Ford’s “populist” government is “corrupt”.

Ford not only hasn’t stopped the “gravy train”, he has accelerated it. His I’m-going-to-put-a- bottle-of-beer-in-every-corner-store sop could cost the little guys and gals he so wants to protect from the voracious taxman $1bn in penalties to break a byzantine 10-year deal struck by the Liberal government with major breweries to sell beer at designated outlets.  

To resuscitate his already on-life-support political prospects, Ford pointed an accusatory finger at, unsurprisingly, his crude, amateurish cabinet, dumping most of his high-profile ministers into junior portfolios. It was akin to shooting the in-house messengers en masse.

Ford’s Spitfire-like descent in popularity also has national implications. Federal Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer – Ford’s ideological soul mate – was poised to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his floundering, scandal-plagued regime in the upcoming general election.

Surely, Scheer knows his odds of winning are fading as fast as Ford’s once Cheshire-confident grin. The electoral calculus is simple: Lose vote-rich Ontario and you lose general elections.

The solution: Encourage Ford to go on a five-month “summer” break, so all those hardworking guys and gals would hopefully forget him and the harm he has wrought until after the national vote, scheduled for October 21.

That pitiful gambit is destined to fail. Ford and his transparently faux populism are, in medical parlance, circling the drain and Scheer may precede him down the pipe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.