Doug Ford at 5 years: Selling out Ontario’s future to please the well-connected

Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends a conference in May 2023 in Etobicoke, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

The initial political success of the Doug Ford government in Ontario has been attributed to its ability to connect with those who have seen themselves as the losers in the province’s economic transition from a manufacturing and resource extraction-based economy to one based on services.

The government’s political survival through last year’s provincial election, despite its bumbling handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been attributed to a range of factors. They include the inability of the opposition parties to offer compelling alternatives and deeper shifts in the province’s political culture.

Ford’s Progressive Conservatives received a thin second electoral mandate, with less than 18 per cent of the ballots of eligible voters and more than 400,000 fewer votes than in 2018.

Nonetheless, the government has doubled down on key themes that emerged during the pre-pandemic period of its first mandate.

Three pillars

That pre-pandemic phase was characterized by:

  1. A deeply reactive, uncritical and, at times, increasingly authoritarian approach to governance.
  2. An agenda that was defined by responsiveness only to certain types of well-established interests.
  3. A casual approach to eliminating provincial revenue streams and embedding long-term costs and liabilities.

The Ford government’s willingness to use the power of the province to benefit those well-connected has been most evident around land-use planning and development.

The province’s land-use planning system, including the Greenbelt and growth plans for the Greater Toronto Area, was once the subject of international acclaim for its management of intense growth pressures in the region while protecting farmland, housing affordability and natural heritage areas.

Signs urge Doug Ford to keep his hands off the Greenbelt.
Signs voicing opposition to the Ontario government’s plans for the province’s Greenbelt are seen outside homes within the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, part of the Greenbelt area, in May 2023.

A succession of housing bills and policy changes proposed and adopted over the past year have completed the system’s transformation into an instrument wielded by the province to overcome any objections to the development industry’s wishes.

Another striking feature of the re-elected Ford government has been its tendency to eliminate provincial revenue streams while entrenching long-term costs. The full impact of this conduct has been masked in the immediate post-pandemic period by buoyant provincial revenues and the extent to which costs and liabilities are being passed along into the future.

Lost revenues

The cancellation of the province’s cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, the pre-2022 election termination of vehicle licensing fees and a post-election cut in provincial gasoline taxes have each cost the provincial treasury approximately $1 billion in lost annual revenues.

Additional drains on provincial resources are happening at the same time. Bill 23, the province’s More Homes Built Faster Act, hindered the ability of municipalities to make developers cover the costs of infrastructure needed to support new development. The province then promised to make municipal governments “whole” if they couldn’t afford these costs.

The arrangement seems likely to translate into a $1 billion annual gift to the for-profit development industry on behalf of provincial taxpayers.

This is on top of the nearly $7 billion a year spent from general revenues to artificially lower hydro rates. These are all resources that could otherwise be going to areas badly in need of investment, like health care and education.

The situation looks even worse going forward. Ontario seems on track to embed enormous long-term costs in the electricity system. A nuclear-heavy plan to decarbonize the electricity grid has an estimated capital cost in the range of $20 billion a year over next two decades.

An increased reliance on natural gas-fired generation will push costs higher still.

Public transit, climate action

Similar problems are emerging in other areas.

In terms of public transit, the estimated cost of the high-profile Ontario line through central Toronto has nearly doubled absent major changes in the province’s approach to project management and oversight.

The price tag is approaching $20 billion even though construction has barely begun. It’s at risk of dwarfing the multi-billion dollar debacles of the Eglinton and Ottawa light rapid-transit projects.

What’s more, the province continues to have no meaningful strategy around climate change, despite the growing evidence of its impacts, including this spring’s wildfires in Ontario.

The orange flames of a wildfire and billowing brown smoke are seen from above.
The Sudbury 17 wildfire burns east of Mississagi Provincial Park near Elliot Lake, Ont., on June 4, 2023.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Handout, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

The province’s Auditor General and Environmental Commissioner recently highlighted other areas of ongoing environmental challenges, ranging from air and water quality to biodiversity losses. The province has no effective plans to address either.

In fact, it has spent much of the past five years actively dismantling the agencies, laws and programs developed over the previous seven decades that had delivered improvements in environmental quality.

In doing so, the Ford government is effectively building environmental liabilities that will be borne by generations to come. That point was highlighted by the province’s dramatic weakening of the rules around mine closure this spring.

Connections are key

Five years into the Ford era, Ontario finds itself in a precarious moment.

The provincial government’s agenda seems to flow from whatever ideas or proposals happen to come its way from sources with access to the government and who are aligned with its policy priorities, regardless of the costs and coherence of what’s proposed.

Well-established industrial, resource extraction, gas-fired and nuclear energy production interests, along with land developers, have tended to be the big winners in Ford’s Ontario.

But major long-term economic and environmental costs and liabilities are being run up as a result by the Ford government, eroding the province’s capacity to deal with future challenges.

In effect, the province’s future is being mortgaged to serve those well-connected to the government. Few Canadian provinces have had a need for better governance with such a scant short-term prospect of seeing that need met.

Mark Winfield, Professor, Environmental and Urban Change, York University, Canada

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You might also like