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Little substance behind Doug Ford's populist message, but may still win: experts

Some have Doug Ford leading the way in the PC leadership race, despite his tactics.
2018-03-01 Doug Ford CP
Ontario PC leadership candidate Doug Ford speaks as he participates in in a debate in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

Doug Ford’s bold promises of government belt-tightening during the last Progressive Conservative leadership debate may win over some of the party’s grassroots, but experts and critics say there isn’t much substance behind his populist message.

Ford, one of four candidates running to succeed Patrick Brown at the helm of the province’s official Opposition, has repeatedly touted his experience as a business owner and former Toronto city councillor in painting himself as the only one equipped to curb reckless spending at Queen’s Park.

In the last of two televised debates before the party selects its new leader, the politician and brother of the late former Toronto mayor Rob Ford vowed to free up billions of dollars by eliminating waste, which he said he achieved at city hall.

Ford, along with his leadership rivals Christine Elliott, Caroline Mulroney and Tanya Granic Allen, have struggled to explain exactly how they will replace an estimated $4.3 billion in revenue that would have come from the carbon tax they have all pledged to axe.

“I don’t believe we need to cut any jobs, I don’t believe in taking food off people’s table,” he clarified in a news conference after the debate Wednesday night. “We’re going to find efficiencies…and that’s how we’re going to save the money, just like we did in the city of Toronto.”

The Liberals were quick to scoff at his promise Thursday, calling it a sign that Ford – who came out ahead in a recent poll on the Tory leadership race – doesn’t understand how government works.

“It’s obvious to me that he does not know what he’s talking about. Those are big big numbers, they mean real cuts to services that Ontarians rely on,” said Liberal legislator Deb Matthews. “That is just magical thinking because those dollars represent jobs.”

Experts, meanwhile, say Ford’s achievements during his single term on city council fall dramatically short of his claims, and while his everyman approach may draw staunch support from the so-called Ford Nation, it’s unclear how that would play out in a general election.

Ford may have been a “force behind the throne” during his brother’s tenure as mayor, but even so, the pair “accomplished very little,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

Despite being largely hamstrung by council, who blocked most of the pair’s plans, the Ford administration did manage to save a few million dollars by privatizing garbage collection in one part of the city, Wiseman said. But those savings amounted to “loose change” in the city’s budget, he said.

What’s more, municipal and provincial politics operate under completely different systems and Ford hasn’t proven himself when it comes to Ontario policy, Wiseman said.

“Ford is not familiar with the issues, he just has this mantra, ‘I’m going to save money,’ but give us some specifics,” he said.

“He’s full of hot air, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get elected.”

Ontario has not been particularly receptive to populist messaging so far, though that approach has gained traction in some suburban and rural pockets of the province, said Barbara Perry, a sociology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Even among Tories, it does not always play well, Perry said, pointing to Ford’s late father as an example. Doug Ford Sr. was a backbencher under former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris and was not taken very seriously, she said.

Still, Ford has “centre stage” in the leadership race, she said. Should he take command of the party, he would have a shot at becoming premier, because populist voters are loyal and motivated, she said.

“It’s really about personality as much as it is policy for him. That bombast,” Perry said.

“The challenge that’s going to play out here is that there’s so much disillusionment with (Ontario Premier Kathleen) Wynne to the point it’s almost a case of ‘anyone but.’ … The issue will be if the voter turnout is low, but his supporters are more tenacious.”

Progressive Conservatives begin voting on their new leader on Friday and the winner will be announced March 10.