There isn’t much that’s less dignified than an Ontario Liberal government fighting for its life, and next week we will begin to see exactly how Premier Kathleen Wynne plans to buy off an electorate that polls suggest is properly and perhaps incurably sick of her. Wynne prorogued the legislature on Thursday and announced Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell would deliver a Throne Speech on Monday. The budget — suddenly and conveniently in deficit by as much as $8 billion, Finance Minister Charles Sousa announced last week — will follow shortly thereafter on the 28th.
Get out your mooching sacks, my fellow Ontarians. The big ones.
This is exactly the sort of sad-sack tactic that Patrick Brown’s middle-of-the-road People’s Guarantee platform was designed to fend off. It reflected opinion research showing that as much as Ontarians might loathe the Liberals, they certainly don’t hate all of their policies: the $15 minimum wage is popular; the real estate tax for foreign buyers is popular; not many of us objected to extending rent control. If the People’s Guarantee didn’t explicitly propose changing something, the party wanted you to know, then it wouldn’t change.
Now PC leader Doug Ford has rubbished the People’s Guarantee and is musing about freezing the minimum wage at $14 and eliminating the foreign buyer’s tax. Having spent not a day of his life in a job at Queen’s Park, he pledges to easily trim four per cent from the budget without cutting a single job or service — the same basic line he and his late brother Rob used to win Toronto City Hall, where quickly enough they were backing service cuts. (They were “efficiencies,” Rob insisted.) And having kept his powder dry for most of the leadership campaign, Ford reverted to type in a blustery, combative and above all unserious CBC interview this week that pleased his supporters but might put off the doubtful.
By rights, this ought to be very risky. For now, though, the polls suggest Ford hasn’t yet made the slightest dent in the Tories’ excellent prospects for victory on June 7.
I would be surprised if that lasted once the campaign gets going in earnest. Mind you, the Liberals look even more objectively ridiculous these days than in previous moments of flailing desperation. They suddenly abandoned a balanced budget that they had marketed until that very moment as one of their signature achievements. Ten minutes later we were supposed to believe that anyone who supports balancing the budget is a heartless lunatic. And on one issue in particular, Ford has established himself as a voice of reason while Wynne is coming off like a common loon: pot.
Ford has mused about expanding marijuana retail options beyond the handful of government-run stores the Liberals have pledged to roll out. In response, Wynne has struck precisely the same Reefer Madness tone that the federal Conservatives used to oppose legalization. “I think a lot of parents would have concern about cannabis being available beside candy bars in corner stores,” she told reporters, idiotically. (“Pot in corner stores” was literally an idiotic Harper talking point against Justin Trudeau.)
“As a grandmother,” said Wynne — fretful parents and grandparents, unite! — “I’d be worried about that. It seems reckless to me.”
Again: Ford simply mooted the idea of people other than government employees selling an intoxicant. That’s precisely the agenda Wynne has been pursuing with frankly surprising enthusiasm on alcohol, which is a much more damaging intoxicant that’s now available at quite a few grocery stores. And she’s marketing herself as the serious option? She has never looked more like a fraud, and while I’m sure it will play well with the unions and the Presbyterian set, it certainly won’t help rally the younger voters she needs to coalesce around her party. Millennial Ontarians might dig statism as a general concept, but they also seem quite attached to the marijuana dispensaries that Wynne promises to put out of business for the sake of the children.
Look, the chances of non-government-employees selling weed in Ontario are remote. This is a very strange province. Ford has pledged to consult his caucus on the matter, and he’s going to get a very dumb and loud earful from them on the matter. I can’t remember a single time I’ve tried to look on the bright side of a Rob Ford or Doug Ford situation where I haven’t wound up disappointed.
But if he keeps not hurting the Tories in the polls, his presence in provincial politics might have positive and counterintuitive effects. As much as politicians always pretend the very future of civilization is at stake, Canadian elections tend to be fought on very small ideological and policy battlefields. What Ontarians seem to want more than anything else is change — any change. Bad new ideas can fill that vacuum, but so can good ones. Bolder-thinking Tories and New Democrats alike might well take heart in this very odd moment in Ontario politics.
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