The Saturday Debate: Is this the start of new Progressive Conservative dynasty in Ontario?

Article originally published in The Star

Contributor Andrew Tumilty

Big machines. They’re what every leader wants to ride in politics.

Big political machines are the ultimate vehicles of power. They know how to perpetuate themselves through government. They know how to campaign when electoral duty calls. They can spot a changing landscape and move quickly to crush their opponents and preserve their advantage. When built properly, anyone can lead a big machine back to power. Just ask Alberta’s Ed Stelmach.

What’s more, Canada is the land of big political machines. You like Red Machines? Well, the federal Liberal party dominated much of Canada’s 20th century politics, including almost all of the period from 1935-1984, but for the Diefenbaker interregnum and the brief fart that was the nine-month Joe Clark “era.” More importantly, the country still bears the imprint of these years in the form of multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Being a big country and a federation to boot, Canada is even capable of accommodating several big machines at once. As the Liberals sat astride federal politics last century, Big Blue Machines were dominant in several bigger provinces. Beginning in 1971, the Progressive Conservatives enjoyed a 44-year run in Alberta (after ending a 36-year run by Social Credit) and the PC’s in Ontario pulled off a 42-year run of their own (1943-1985), capped by 14 years from the legendary Bill Davis.

Which brings us to Doug Ford. Does his recent reelection portend the reinstatement of the fabled Big Blue Machine? Or are we now too fragmented as a society to ever again coalesce over the long run?

Upon first glance, it appears the nays would have it. After all, Justin Trudeau now leads a national minority government with barely 32 per cent support and provincial governments have been whipsawing between parties in recent years.

Is anything in politics built to last anymore, when people are disengaged, as they are now, or increasingly issues-based voters? And can durable coalitions be built when political parties are more of an afterthought, rather than creatures with genuine roots in communities?

Then again, looking at the ashes of the recent provincial election, the conditions are certainly there for a new era in Ontario. With a divided and disorganized opposition and the worst of the pandemic now behind us, there is a peace dividend waiting to be claimed by the Ford government. And with much of the PC’s rhetoric now geared to the working class — and the NDP is dropping like a hot potato — there is a constituency and a durable path to victory should that rhetoric now be turned into action.

With the Liberals and NDP increasingly playing to the echo chambers of social media and the cultural imperatives of noisy pressure groups, there is a broad expanse in front of Doug Ford and his PCs, should they be able to successfully refocus politics on more durable issues like economic opportunity and economic inclusion.

Saying it doesn’t make you popular in today’s newsrooms (or make you right, for that matter), but issues like Indigenous rights or climate change are harder to care about if you don’t know where, or how, you’re going to be making your living, or if your dream of home ownership is slipping away.

Many people who are currently under economic stress don’t feel like their politicians are listening to them, and haven’t been listening to them for decades. So when a leader comes along who sounds like them, looks like them, and talks about things they worry about, that leader stands a chance of becoming part of the provincial furniture.

Ford possesses something Trudeau also has in spades: name recognition. And in today’s era of celebrity politics, that matters. More importantly, Ford’s opponents don’t have it. With Andrea Horwath and Steven Del Duca now taking their leave from politics, the NDP and Liberals will need to freshen up their lineups.

But who in their right mind wants to get involved in politics these days? If you’re making a good living doing something else, what’s going to make you trade it in for the chance to be an internet punchline? Who on Team NDP or Liberal could spark a revolution akin to Trudeau’s at the federal level in 2013?

The answer is: no-one. That’s why, provided the premier can stay out of his own way and surround himself with a capable team, Ford is built to last in Ontario.

In considering whether Doug Ford’s second term as premier signals the start of a Conservative dynasty, it is worth trying to define what constitutes a dynasty.

Colloquially, the term dynasty is often applied to championship sports teams. It is a somewhat subjective label, but at a bare minimum the bar for a dynasty is set at three championships in five seasons. Ford’s Conservative parties have now won back-to-back elections, but need to keep winning to even start being considered a dynasty.

To say that Ford is at the precipice of a dynasty is a hasty observation at best and a presumptuous one at worst. A second win for Ford was always the most likely scenario. In Ontario’s history, Bob Rae stands as the only premier to win a majority government and fail to win his first attempt at re-election.

For Ontario Conservatives, the standard for a dynasty is particularly high. Starting with a minority government in 1943, the Progressive Conservative party of Ontario was in power for the next 42 years, until 1985. Even then, it took an agreement of support between David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s NDP for the “Big Blue Machine” to finally be run off the road.

During those four decades, one premier led the province for a third of the time himself. Bill Davis first ascended to the premier’s office in 1971, remaining there for 14 years until his retirement in 1985. Ford has been in office four years and has secured a mandate for another four years. He could win a third election and still be short of Davis’ tenure and well short of the party’s previous record.

Ford has clearly not achieved a dynasty yet, but it would be unfair to ignore the question of whether he may still reach that status.

If predicting election results a few weeks out from Election Day is like driving at night, divining results that are a few years away is like driving at night, with no headlights, in a snowstorm … and backwards. Still, some signs on the side of the road may point to Ford’s future.

Ford’s team ran an impressive campaign for re-election. They were disciplined, tactical, rarely spent any time off message and are due all the credit for a convincing victory. In politics and sports you have to be good to be lucky. There were fortunate factors in both of Ford’s wins that were beyond his team, and are unlikely to be replicated.

In 2018, Ford ran against a Liberal party that had been in power for 15 years and voters were clearly ready for a change. To keep winning in future campaigns, Ford will have to ensure that voters don’t become tired of his government. If there is a massive movement toward change again, it will be his team that will be on the wrong end of the election results.

In his second win, Ford faced two opposition leaders who spent much of the campaign fighting amongst themselves, instead of making a clear case for change. Andrea Horwath had been leader of the NDP through three previous elections and failed to convince voters on her fourth try. Voters apparently knew her well enough to determine it wasn’t her time to lead, and so she decided it was her time to go.

In Steven Del Duca, Ford faced a leader the voters barely knew. What they did know was that they were not ready to let the Liberals out of the penalty box yet and so Del Duca found himself also stepping down on Election Night.

In the next election campaign, Ford will face new leaders for each of these opposition parties. New leaders can bring new perspective, voters and energy to a campaign and Ford’s team will have to develop new strategies to achieve a third victory. It’s possible that they will succeed, but it’s hardly a certainty.

Taking Ford’s second win as a sign or more wins to come is like looking at the Leafs’ Stanley Cup record in the 1960s without knowing what happened next.

Winning in the moment is no way to judge if winning will continue. Ford has won twice; that is not a dynasty on its own and it is far too early to see those wins as the start of one either.

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