Chairman's Desk

Cautionary tales for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives on the unseen dangers of majority rule

It’s the stuff political dreams are made of.

A resounding mandate born of a strategic and methodical campaign. A headless opposition — divided in allegiance, confused in direction, adrift. A feeling, perhaps even a certainty, that it is the very best of times. And yet, in the political world, it takes precious little for the dream to spoil and the tale to turn cautionary.

For Ontario’s recently re-elected Progressive Conservative government to avoid such a fate and to maintain the confidence of its electorate, they must be wary of the pitfalls that have befallen past governments in similar, seemingly unassailable positions.

Doing so is simple, but not easy. It requires the exercise of an uncommon level of vigilance to combat the tendencies of arrogance and recklessness that so often accompany major political victories. History teaches that large majority governments, particularly those without effective partisan opposition, are prone to the miscalculations that quickly sow the seeds of their eventual defeat.

For evidence, Premier Doug Ford’s government need look no further than the fate of their federal cousins after the infamous 1988 “free-trade election.” With a victory that the New York Times characterized as a “Stunning Reversal” in their front page headline the next day, former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s win could not have been sweeter. With that majority in hand and the two main opposition parties leaderless, the quest to build a free-trade market across the 49th parallel lay open. And yet, only five short years later, the federal Progressive Conservative party was reduced to two seats — in other words, rubble.

The greater the triumph, the greater the fall.

In crises, the deadliest poison is hubris — and along with it, a sense of invincibility, a failure to anticipate adversity and to plan long-term. Second-term majority governments often fall into this trap when they abandon not only the principles but the very political acuity that won them their power.

During its first term, the Ford government proved highly responsive to public opinion, demonstrating a willingness to make concessions and reverse course on several key issues, including its response to the pandemic. This dexterity — some would say humility — surprised many, and in Ford’s view, significantly contributed to his party’s re-election.

But that was then. Today, the premier and his government face the daunting dual challenges of ballooning inflation and a looming recession — circumstances that will require the government to be more politically adept than ever. For example, research by our firm Navigator found that three-quarters of Ontarians are convinced the provincial government can act to tame inflation, ascribing more tools to the government than they actually have.

Into the expanding bag of issues, throw gas prices, an overburdened health-care system and the rising challenge of affordability. Add to it the risk of a media that will be emboldened and increasingly hostile given the lack of an effective opposition, and before you know it a bunker mentality will set in. It happens all the time in second-term governments, and it will take relentless discipline to prevent it.

The best recipe to avoid the worst of times is for the Ford government to ignore the happy circumstance of a weak opposition, instead employing the same political calculus that has been essential to their triumphs thus far. One that has been wedded both to the guidance of public opinion, yet at the same time resilient to strong criticism.

The simple fact is that this government won a larger majority with fewer votes. As history shows, it’s a victory that could turn to a crushing defeat in four short years without restraint, a clear vision and an appetite to solve once-in-a-lifetime challenges.

The opening weeks of a rare summertime sitting of Ontario’s legislature at the “Pink Palace” will provide the first clue as to how much heed they will pay to the cautionary lessons of those majorities past, once seemingly indestructible.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on July 25, 2022.

Read More