Sean Speer: If Doug Ford needs a governing agenda, improving Ontarians’ quality of life would be a good start

The basic foundation of quality-of-life conservatism is public safety
Ontario Premier Doug Ford leaves a news conference in Toronto, on Friday, June 3, 2022, after winning the provincial election. Chris Young/The Canadian Press.

Now that the Ontario election is over, the question is: what next?

It’s clear that the Ford government has a mandate but it’s less clear what that mandate is for. The Progressive Conservative Party’s modest policy platform essentially affirmed the government’s pre-election budget12022 Ontario Budget: Ontario’s Plan to Build which will be effectuated in short order. That necessarily leaves the better part of four years for which to develop and implement a governing agenda. 

Answering this question is somewhat complicated by the fact that the incoming government’s electoral coalition is broad and diverse. It needs to pursue a set of policies that speak to the party’s core conservative voters as well as newer ones in Toronto and Thunder Bay. 

One source of potential commonality regardless of ideology or postal code is what American conservative thinker Reihan Salam calls “quality-of-life conservatism.” His basic premise is that conservatives ought to commit themselves to a set of issues that cumulatively influence the public’s overall sense of its quality of life. 

While there may be different emphases in different parts of the province—in Toronto, for instance, a quality-of-life conservatism may emphasize housing and transportation compared to Thunder Bay where it might focus more on good jobs and broadband access—the common theme of improving the quality of life of Ontarians can provide philosophical scaffolding for the Ford government’s forthcoming four-year agenda. 

The basic foundation of Salam’s quality-of-life conservatism is public safety. Ontario Conservatives should continue to generally oppose the Trudeau government’s and now the Supreme Court’s decarceral agenda and more recent calls for the decriminalization of hard drugs. As we’ve seen in American cities such as New York and San Francisco, this soft-on-crime progressivism is bound to lead to rising criminality and disorder. 

Instead, the goal of stronger province-wide public safety ought to start with more and better policing, an openness to credible firearms reform (including tougher criminal sanctions for crimes involving guns), and following the Kenney government’s drug rehabilitation alternative to the Left’s failed (and morally dubious) harm reduction strategy.

A second pillar of a quality-of-life conservatism would prioritize the adoption of the province’s Housing Affordability Task Force’s recommendations2Housing Affordability Task Force report to reduce red tape, expedite housing construction, and enable new and different forms of housing, including laneway homes and other types that fill the so-called “missing middle.” 

Addressing the province’s housing affordability crisis is not only a key to improving quality of life, but it can also unlock greater economic activity, including higher rates of innovation and productivity, by enabling highly-skilled workers to cluster in Toronto and the province’s other dynamic cities. 

Another pillar of quality-of-life conservatism would be greater ambition in health-care reform. The Ford government has been more hesitant than many of its provincial peers in leveraging private delivery to address Ontario’s massive pandemic-induced backlog of surgeries and diagnostic tests. The Ontario Medical Association now estimates that there’s a backlog of more than 20 million health-care services across the province. These protracted delays, which lead to economic costs as well as individual pain and suffering, are an obvious threat to one’s quality of life. The Ford government should therefore put a broader set of reforms on the table including adopting the OMA’s proposal for a network of community surgical centres to carry out routine surgeries (such as hips and knees) outside of hospitals.3Integrated Ambulatory Centres: A Three-Stage Approach to Addressing Ontario’s Critical Surgical and Procedural Wait Times

More and different forms of child-care should also be on the government’s agenda. The province’s inadequate child-care supply which is driving up the costs for young families, particularly in major cities, is due at least in part to a panoply of provincial regulations. As the Ford government starts to implement the federal-provincial agreement on child-care, it should conduct a review of its own regulatory framework in the name of enabling child-care pluralism to flourish in the province. The current supply-demand disequilibrium in Ontario’s constellation of child-care options should be understood as a government failure. 

Prior to the election, the Ford government had placed a major emphasis on public infrastructure investment including broadband and subways. This should continue in the new mandate but with a greater focus on reducing construction red tape and leveraging new and cheaper technologies. 

On broadband, the government should follow Quebec’s lead by extending high-quality coverage through satellite technology based on some combination of Canadian-based Telesat and Elon Musk’s Starlink. It’s the cheapest and fastest means of achieving greater equity when comes to internet access across the province. As for more traditional infrastructure, the emphasis must be on translating the campaign slogan of “Get it Done” into a practical agenda of regulatory reform so as to enable faster and cheaper infrastructure construction in Ontario. 

One interesting idea that the Ford government might explore as part of a quality-of-life conservatism is reforming the province’s student grants such that children start to receive provincial contributions into a post-secondary savings account even before they’re ready to apply for university or college. Evidence shows that pushing up access to public post-secondary subsidies can lead to higher rates of eventual enrolment and attainment.4Post-Secondary Access: Jennifer Robson on Better Life Chances for Ontario’s Children The Ford government should experiment with such a model in the name of greater social mobility. 

A more controversial pillar would be to return to the government’s previous attempts at reforming the province’s system of social assistance. Presently too many recipients languish on Ontario Works, which has basically become a program of perpetual and inadequate sustenance rather than a catapult into stable employment. Programmatic reforms (including for instance clarifying eligibility between Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program) could then enable the government to strengthen core support for those who remain on disability benefits. 

There are no doubt various other policy areas and reforms (including Labour Minister Monte McNaughton’s highly ambitious agenda) that fit under the auspices of a quality-of-life conservatism. The key at this stage is to erect some philosophical scaffolding around such an agenda before starting to build out a comprehensive set of policies. The Ford government’s upcoming Speech from the Throne is a key opportunity to begin this heavy lifting. 

The Premier and his team should see it as a moment to articulate the basis of a quality-of-life conservatism in order to bring expression to their impressive yet ill-defined electoral mandate. Improving the quality of life of Ontarians is a mandate worth winning for.

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