Canada’s progressives are easily impressed

Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford has been lauded for his COVID-19 response, but does he deserve the praise?

Doug Ford
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is seen after a meeting with Canada's provincial premiers in Toronto on December 2, 2019 [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

Note to easily impressed progressives: Best hold your applause.

I am obliged to issue this injunction because a slew of otherwise usually sensible people in Canada have gone off the rhetorical deep end in praising libertarian politicians for their suddenly enlightened response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The unlikely and marquee subject of much of their often-gooey adulation has been Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Not too long ago, the leader of Canada’s most populous and powerful province was largely known for being the older, slightly less embarrassing brother of the crack-smoking, gangster-consorting former Toronto mayor, Rob Ford.

Like his late brother, Ford has leveraged a vanilla career as a rank, often profane opportunist into political success by exploiting simmering anger and disenchantment with liberal elites and by selling himself as the populist antidote to “big” government.

And like his late brother, Ford has always had an affinity for bumper-sticker, my-gut-knows-best solutions to complex, challenging problems. In lieu of thinking, this, of course, translated into his recycling of standard libertarian tropes to “cut the red-tape” and “open” the province for “business”.

Not surprisingly, Ford’s signature gambit during the June 2018 election campaign was to promise voters a “buck-a-beer” at corner stores. Sadly, it worked. He won – a majority, to depressing boot.

So, as a new virus began its lethal sweep across the globe, there was, understandably, a palpable mixture of resignation and foreboding among progressives that Premier Ford was going to rely on his prominent gut rather than the brains in “big” government to address the emerging crisis.

In early March, Ford appeared to confirm their restive fears when – while other, more astute, politicians in other places issued lockdown orders – he urged winter-weary Ontarians to “have fun” in the midst of the pandemic by travelling during spring break to sun-kissed potential hot spots for coronavirus.

Weeks later, when the “low risk” gauge predictably turned “high risk”, Ford had an unexpected epiphany and, indeed, miraculous transformation befitting the pending religious holiday.

Ford’s crass, bombastic reliance on his instincts and fuming antipathy towards bureaucratic expertise yielded to a stark, immutable fact: You cannot tame a rampaging virus with your gut.

As a result, Ford was compelled not only to surrender to the obvious, but defer to the brainy bureaucrats he habitually derided as tenured members of a “bloated” government in urgent and necessary need of culling.

Science, not instinct, would guide his actions in battling COVID-19, Ford said.

For finally acting responsibly rather than instinctively, Ford’s hallelujah moment has been lauded by progressives and centrist-hugging commentators as proof that he is a “true leader” who “deserves all Ontarians’ credit and support”.

“I am going to say it, plainly and simply: Ontario Premier Doug Ford is doing an admirable job of shepherding the province, all of us, through this crisis,” one starry-eyed convert wrote in early April.

As late as January, these gushing progressives would have, no doubt, preferred to hoist Ford in effigy. Today, the country’s intelligentsia – that Ford railed against as a core principle of his populist schtick – sounds eager to invite the former decal salesman turned premier to dinner, if not vote for him.

But as the halting scope and scale of the virus’s human toll began to reveal itself – particularly in many of the province’s neglected homes for the elderly and disabled – the short-sighted and frankly inhumane folly of Ford’s pre-pandemic zeal to cut “red tape” and dismiss the curative role that governments can play to serve the public good became apparent.

After assuming power, Ford promptly set out to all but end comprehensive and unannounced inspections of long-term care homes. Reportedly, in 2019, only nine of the province’s 626 homes received so-called “resident quality inspections”.

In an instructive volte-face, Ford has promised to ramp up inspections and, in effect, belatedly try to undo the carnage that his and other rabidly Conservative premiers’ laissez-faire attitude have exacted. Research shows residents of for-profit nursing homes in Ontario are four times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the elderly who live in not-for-profit or city-run facilities.

Poorly paid front-line care workers in those homes routinely shuttled from one job to another to make frayed ends meet, risking spreading the virus. Still, early in his tenure as premier, Ford nixed a modest increase in the minimum wage.

These days, Ford calls these overworked, underpaid helpers “heroes” and touts giving them a temporary raise for herculean services rendered.

Notice Ford’s hypocritical modus operandi: having taken enthusiastic credit for sabotaging public service then, after a pandemic has exposed the recklessness of his parochial, libertarian impulses, he pivots to heralding public servants as indispensable.

And yet, some progressives publicly confess to having a crush on the cliche-spouting premier. “I’ve become fond of Doug Ford and his cliches,” a left-leaning Toronto Star columnist wrote. “It’s quite lovable, I’m afraid.”

My goodness.

Others clapped after Ford recently described a gaggle of demonstrators objecting to quarantine measures as a “bunch of yahoos”.

Well, that “bunch of yahoos” are the very anti-science, anti-“red tape” minions Ford has spent lots of time and hyperbolic energy courting. Worse, he has stoked their deeply engrained bitterness and hostility towards “big” government and faithfully championed their cockeyed interests in and out of office.

Ford loved the “yahoos” before he loathed the “yahoos”.

Apparently, progressives have forgotten all about Ford’s crude, manipulative history. Instead, they saluted him for chastising a motley crew of protesters who, in all likelihood, voted for him because he gave succour and vent to every ounce of their retrograde beliefs.

In any event, those “yahoos” are also doubtless furious with Ford for spending billions of dollars to help people and industry weather the pandemic.

They should not fret. When this plague inevitably ebbs, the mushrooming provincial debt – forecast to quadruple to a record $41bn – will need to be paid down as quickly as possible.

How do Ford’s new-found progressive fans think that is going to happen and who will be asked to make the “hard” sacrifices to ensure that future generations are not “crippled” with unsustainable debt?   

It is not going to be super-rich Ontarians who set up numbered companies in offshore tax havens to shield their money from the tax collector. They, as always, will be spared making any sacrifice, of any sort, at any time.

Soon enough, Ford will bid an enthusiastic goodbye to his John Maynard Keynes-like interventionism and promptly embrace Milton Friedman’s free-market-loving ways again.

That means Ford will make the “heroes” pay the bill, with interest, if need be. Nurses, doctors, delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, teachers, truckers, warehouse workers, civil servants and so many other working people will, as always, bear the “hard” sacrifices.

They will also bear the dehumanising brunt of austerity 2.0 that Ford and the other libertarian zealots will engineer and enforce with, I suspect, a singular efficiency and ruthlessness. Their sacred mantra of “cut, cut, cut” will again define every act of government.

I wonder, will progressives applaud Ford then?

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