Doug Ford was the luncheon speaker at the Empire Club this week. The Empire Club is always a friendly audience, with the speaker choosing a supportive introducer and interlocutor, and with no audience questions permitted. The tables at the live event are bought by the speaker’s pals. Since the onset of the pandemic, you can watch online for free, and a video is made available on the club’s website.
Build Baby Build
The speech was an opportunity for Ford to lay out his government’s vision, which is all about economic development. It privileges manufacturing, especially the auto sector, and mining, particularly materials used in batteries. The government also plans to spend $184 billion on infrastructure over ten years with what Ford is proud to call “really really big projects” in public transit, highways, hospitals, and schools. Ontario’s population is growing, so building more housing is also a priority.
In addition to providing infrastructure, the government’s role in the vision is providing trained workers, keeping taxes low, and ensuring that projects can be built quickly by reducing red tape. In housing development, Ford proudly proclaims his opposition to “bananas,” people who want to “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.” His example of the difference between Kathleen Wynne’s government and his own is that hers required proposed mines to have a detailed closure plan before they could proceed, while his government lets them proceed with a “conditional closure plan …. without compromising Ontario’s world-class environmental standards [sic].”
Ford was introduced by Joseph Mancinelli, Canadian director of the Labourer’s International Union of North America, who lauded him for having “turned the province around” with his “exceptional leadership.” His interlocutor was Flavio Volpe, President of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, who was ecstatic about really really big projects in auto manufacturing, such as the Volkswagen battery plant in St. Thomas. Where you stand depends on where you sit, and Ford’s vision leaves both Mancinelli and Volpe sitting pretty.
As a skeptic in the audience, I was aware of values Ford was ignoring. Many of his development projects, such as Highway 413 and subdivisions in the greenbelt, will have a massive and detrimental impact on the environment. While Ford is positioning Ontario to play a major role in manufacturing electric vehicles, his government is doing very little to give Ontarians incentives to reduce their own carbon footprints. For example, it has lowered gasoline taxes enough to offset the federal government’s carbon tax. As soon as it took office, it cancelled the Wynne Government’s subsidy for EVs, though it has retained the GV licence plates.
The High-Water Mark?
Speaking to a friendly audience and glowing with praise from the beneficiaries of his policies, Ford appeared completely in charge.
But there may be clouds in his sky. His approval ratings have dropped from 45 percent when he was re-elected a year ago to 33 percent now. A key factor in the drop appears to be his government’s move to private delivery of some health care services, a topic he did not discuss at The Empire Club.
The Ontario Court of Appeal will soon be ruling on the constitutionality of Bill 124, which limits collective bargaining for public sector employees. Underpaying public servants helps keep taxes low. Litigating Bill 124 is destroying whatever support the Ford Government has among public sector workers; losing the litigation will cost the government billions.
Former Mayor John Tory was generally supportive of the Ford Government. Olivia Chow, almost certain to be elected next week, won’t be. They will soon clash over Ford’s plans to privatize part of Ontario Place and to move the Ontario Science Centre there. Pressing ahead with an unpopular project will hurt Ford in the GTA but backtracking will make him look weak, undercutting the image he tries to project.
Finally, the Liberals will have a new leader next December and their criticism of the Ford Government will intensify. The 2026 election campaign will begin in earnest at that point.
Undoubtedly Ford thinks he is doing a great job and that he is delivering what Ontarians want. He is upselling the benefits of his plans now, but their costs will also become apparent. It may be downhill from now on for Doug Ford.