The Cost of Political Absentia

Would you buy

anything from this man? A used car? A label or tag? A house in Etobicoke? A U.S. subsidiary branch plant?

Yet voters in Ontario have elected him premier of the province not once but twice.

I mean, this guy

Now he’s running around, using and/or threatening to use the charter’s notwithstanding clause like it’s an extra tablespoon of butter (“for added texture”), this latest foray into the unconstitutional in order to crush collective bargaining rights for educational workers, when he’s not in court to try and duck questions from the Public Order Emergency Commission about his government’s near absence during the past winter’s trucker convoy in Ottawa or constantly meddling in the municipal governance of Toronto because, ultimately, all Doug Ford really wanted to be is mayor of that city.

The list of misgovernance and missed opportunities goes on and on. The man was never fit for office, any office really, but especially this office. To say he’s way in over his head as premier is to do a disservice to drowning men everywhere. Doug Ford represents the wrong man at the right time or the right man at the wrong time or whatever combination of person and temporality one might choose. He is the relentless vagaries of historical contingency.

Like he owes his family fortune to his late father, Doug Ford owes his very political existence to his late brother, Rob, former mayor and city councillor of Toronto. No Rob, No Doug. No question. Doug possesses none of Rob’s schlumpy, man-of-the-people charm. When he assumed Rob’s council seat in 2010 after little brother became mayor, Doug displayed less-than-zero interest in the hands-on constituent grunt work that made Rob beloved by his ardent supporters, an incessant on-the-phone day-or-night accessibility Rob seemed to thrive on in between bouts of booze and drug-taking and loutish public behaviour. By family default, and completely out of nowhere, Doug foisted himself into 2nd in command at City Hall, causing as much mayhem and damage to Rob’s time as mayor as Rob did himself. Remember the ferris wheel? The $20 giveaway sweepstakes? A fraternal disorder of clowning.

After losing the mayor’s race in 2014, stepping into Rob’s re-election spot when Rob became ill, it appeared all that awaited Doug was the political wilderness, a justified obscurity for what should’ve amounted to little more than a blip of a public anomaly. What followed might be considered Doug Ford’s finest political maneuvering, his ascension to the provincial Progressive Conservative leadership. I have no idea how. Didn’t pay much attention. What role he played in ousting the perpetually scandaled Patrick Brown and how he bested established competition like Christine Elliott, I couldn’t tell you. But somehow again, right man, right place, wrong man, right place, right man, wrong place…

In the subsequent provincial election, Doug Ford was the right face for the outrage and anger at the long-in-tooth Liberal government, overripe for the picking. The electorate didn’t seem to just want a change in government at Queen’s Park. They wanted revenge. The wanted to mete out humiliation, a gushing bloodletting.

Doug Ford found his moment.

Which, unsurprisingly for anyone who’d been following him from the beginning, he fumbled almost immediately, soon facing poll numbers as moribund as the government he’d just helped show the door to. Bumbling and quarrelsome, both inside and outside his own caucus, Ford displayed a second instance of political acumen, re-arranging his office and parting ways (at least publicly) with his divisive chief of staff, Dean French. He booted out long established fringe players in his caucus like Randy Hellier for not being enough of a team player. It all worked to give him something of a more moderate sheen, a unique perception for a Ford, any Ford.

Then, Covid.

In what could be considered the upshot of operating with a low bar of expectations, despite more ineptness on his part, certainly initially during the pandemic, Doug Ford’s reputation managed to keep its head above water, measured simply by the metric, Well, it could’ve been worse. It was worse. Just look at the States. Alberta. The U.K. Saskatchewan. Ontario didn’t fare well during Covid but it fared better than some.

That, in itself, seemed to provide a win for Doug Ford.

Come re-election time this past June, he essentially breezed to an easy victory, the sole beneficiary of the lowest voter turnout in the province’s history. The opposition rolled over and played dead, pretty much conceding Ford a second term from the outset. It was bloodless. Almost as if an election campaign never happened.

How and why?

Probably no single reason if there’s ever any single reason for a singular occurrence.

A list of possibilities:

1) The first misuse of this government’s utilization of the notwithstanding clause in restricting 3rd-party spending for a year leading up to an election. It maintained a certain quiet on the media front, giving the impression that there was nothing much worth discussing.

2) A dearth of political opposition. In their non-party status wisdom, the Liberals thought it astute to elect as leader a guy who represented everything Ontario voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2018, figuring, I guess, they’d forget by 2022. They didn’t. The Liberals still don’t have official party status. As for the official opposition, the NDP, in hindsight it feels as if the provincial campaign was little more than a warm-up for leader Andrea Horwath’s run in the fall for mayor of Hamilton. There was no fire. No sense of urgency.

3) A complacency that seemed to permeate through the electorate of Ontario. Late-spring with the prospect of the first mandate-free summer in three years, it felt as if nobody wanted to risk upsetting anything. If everything remains exactly the same, maybe nothing will change because lately the only change has been a change for the worse. Let’s pretend it’s 2018 again, before any of this happened.

Despite all the upheavals we’d been subject to, despite the ominous dark clouds on the horizon in front of us, a pandemic we simply wished away that is still very much with us, high inflation, rising interest rates, a distinct possibility of an economic recession, and do not get me started on the environmental crisis, we, like frightened rabbits hoping to avoid harm by remaining motionless, opted for the status quo. At least, 18% of voters did, assisted by the 57% of other voters who took a pass on exercising their democratic right obligation right. Franchise? What franchise?

And now, here we are.

The charter-schmarter. An outright attack on workers’ rights. Covid still a-raging even if not acknowledged. The premier going to court in order to avoid accountability. An omnibus housing bill that misses the mark on key targets: not enough and not in the right places. The wetlands? Who needs them? Not Doug Ford’s donor class, that’s for sure.

This is what happens when voters can’t be bothered. Good faith political actors do not rush in to fill the void. It’s the place for schemers, for authoritarians and crackpots. For the faux-cheesecake makers and Halloween pumpkin carvers.

Look at him. He’s not so bad. He’s practically domesticated.


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