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Matt Spoke: Doug Ford risks letting down a generation of Ontarians—and losing the next election in the process

Commentary

“Guns blazing” might have been the best way to describe Doug Ford at the beginning of his term as Ontario premier in 2018. Among many policy priorities at the time, his ardent supporters seemed most excited by his willingness to shake up Toronto politics forever by cutting the size of city council in half and giving strong powers to the office of mayor—both incredibly controversial moves that had him labeled as an enemy of democracy in the eyes of some but a champion of progress for others.

Although these two policies were welcomed by conservatives in particular because they aimed to dramatically reduce gridlock at Toronto City Hall, it was really the temperament behind these moves that stood out most. We finally had a leader in Ontario who wasn’t afraid to kill sacred cows in an effort to make the province function again. Political consequences be damned.

Today, in 2024, that version of Premier Ford doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Instead, in the midst of a severe national housing crisis—disproportionately caused by decades of bad policy in Toronto and Ontario—Ford has lost his reformist zeal. He’s become a status quo politician.

Although no leader wants to govern through a crisis, this one presented a unique opportunity for a conservative premier in Canada’s largest province. Long before Pierre Poilievre became the champion of housing in Canada, the mantle was Ford’s for the taking. After all, he was the premier who first started talking about the need to accelerate housing completions in Canada—a big part of the motivation behind his dramatic moves to change Toronto City Council; the premier who appointed an ambitious Housing Affordability Taskforce to make recommendations to the province on immediate actions to take; and the premier who has promoted several significant pieces of housing legislation since coming into office. 

But in all of this, he’s ultimately refused to go beyond words. The facts regrettably speak for themselves: It’s more expensive today to build housing in Toronto than when Ford became premier; the long-awaited Housing Affordability Taskforce report has substantively been collecting dust on a shelf; the housing laws that have passed in the Ontario legislature have had marginal, if any, effect on housing completions; and just last week, the premier reaffirmed his NIMBY credentials by shutting down a proposal that would have allowed gentle intensification of neighbourhoods across the province—a policy that is now supported by the province’s other political parties (a fact that in and of itself would normally have me thinking the other way).

In 2021, the Ford government announced its target to see 1.5 million new homes built in Ontario by 2031. It was a target that was arguably too low to account for recent immigration trends. But it was something. It certainly reflected a level of ambition that far exceeded recent history.

Reaching the target however required leadership. The real estate development industry for instance soon concluded that it was effectively impossible without immediate and significant changes to land use policies—many of which were recommended in Ford’s own Housing Affordability Taskforce report.

A new townhouse complex is under construction in Toronto on Thursday, November 3, 2016. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

To date, almost three years into government’s own 10-year goal, no such substantial policies have been enacted and the province is well behind its target of 150,000 new homes per year. To get ahead of its obvious underperformance, it’s now starting to add long-term care beds and finished basement units in the province’s math for housing completions. But bogus accounting is no substitute for leadership.

Although not a comprehensive solution to the crisis and of itself, last week’s announcement that Ford would never support fourplexes in neighbourhoods across the province demonstrated that he is unwilling to make the difficult (and sometimes politically unpopular) decisions needed to address the magnitude of this housing crisis.

This week, along with the province’s budget, we expect to hear from Ford’s housing minister, Paul Calandra, on the government’s renewed housing policy agenda, but already the rumours are circulating that the minister’s housing ambitions have been significantly watered down since going to cabinet and the premier for approval.

All of this has been disappointing to watch unfold. Today, I write this article reluctantly. I once held this government and this premier in high regard and I continue to be a card-carrying member of the PC Party. But now, more importantly, I’m a member of an overlooked generation. I’m 36 years old, I have two children and I live in Toronto. The cards are getting stacked against Ontarians like me. The Ford government’s anti-reform agenda—its protection of the status quo—has done nothing to change that for me and my family.

Patrick Luciani: Is populism destroying European democracy?

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani takes a look at Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe, by Larry M. Bartels (Princeton University Press, 2024), which tries to assess just how much of a threat populism is to European democracy.

Those who have followed European politics over the past 15 years no doubt felt a significant decline in support of liberal democracy. These years were marked by the emergence of populist governments in Poland and Hungary and the seismic Brexit event in 2016. In Western Europe, the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, the right-wing government of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Vox in Spain, and the recent rise of Chega in Portugal have only strengthened this perception. 

Numerous factors have contributed to Europe’s radical shift towards anti-elitist and anti-establishment parties. The economic disruptions of globalization, the influx of unregulated immigration from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries, and the alarming rise in crime have all played a significant role. Even in the traditionally stable and peaceful Scandinavian countries, immigration has strained the tolerance and budgets of generous social welfare programs. 

This situation has led to a widespread belief that traditional democratic institutions have failed to address the urgent need for reforms. The disillusionment with democratic liberalism is borne by Pew data and further amplified by Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s declaration that “the era of liberal democracy is over,” a sentiment that gained traction after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. 

But those on the political Right aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with liberal democracy. Those on the progressive Left are perhaps even more disappointed with democratic liberalism’s very roots, which entrenched individual rather than group rights based on identity politics. Ireland’s recent rejection of a change in its constitution’s wording to incorporate group rights is a case in point. What was supposed to be an easy victory for Ireland’s political elites in redefining the meaning of relationships and the role of women in the home was solidly rejected by a public suspicious of an attack against traditional values. 

Though parties on the extreme Right in Europe have increased their vote count, they have yet to see their support garner more than 10 to 20 percent of the popular vote in most countries. 

In his new book on the erosion of European democracy entitled Democracy Erodes from the Top, Larry Bartels, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, challenges the prevailing notion that the public is the catalyst for radical reform. He is one of the rare thinkers who goes against the prevailing wisdom that the public is driving radical change in Europe. 

His extensive research, covering 23 European countries over the last 15 years, reveals a stark contrast between the perceived crisis of democracy and Europeans’ actual attitudes. Contrary to popular belief, support for democracy as a system of government has not weakened, and trust in national parliaments and politicians has remained virtually unchanged. Both go against conventional wisdom and general perception. 

People are reflected in a window with the logo of the World Economy Forum on the last day of the forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo.

The real culprits for the turmoil and European political troubles, or what Bartels calls “political backsliding,” lie not with ordinary citizens but with political elites. The author doesn’t conclude that citizens are passive agents in the demand for political change and play no role in demands for democratic reforms. He observes that we tend to exaggerate the threats of populism and the alarmism that comes with it.

He reminds us that the financial collapse of 2008 was routinely compared to the crisis in the 1930s, yet by 2014-15, average satisfaction with the economy in Europe was higher than before the crisis and continued to improve until COVID-19 hit in 2020. Public support for European integration held steady during the Euro crisis in the early years of the 21st century, and even under the threat that Greece would leave the Eurozone. 

What about the highly contentious problem of immigration? Where one would expect a deep deterioration of support and demand for more restrictions, Bartels sees little evidence in public surveys that immigration and asylum-seeking have produced “any significant erosion in public attitudes toward immigrants.”  

The author reminds us that warnings about the collapse of democracy are hardly rare. Popular and scholarly writings about the crisis of democracy have a long history and can be found in articles in Foreign Affairs from the 1930s. Most recent books on the rise of populism, such as David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, have been inspired by Trump’s election in the U.S. or Bolsonaro in Brazil and the threat they and other populist leaders pose to liberal democracies. But populism is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Populists too often make the mistake of believing they are fulfilling the “will of the people” and find there is no such thing. Professor Bartels reminds us trying to discern what people truly believe is hard work.