Ontario is heading into a provincial election on June 7 and all three parties have come out with promises that affect every worker and youth for better or for worse. The political landscape is polarized between Ford’s anti-establishment rhetoric and the apparent “left swing” of the Liberals and the NDP. As this article is being written, current polling data puts the Progressive Conservatives at 46 percent compared to 27 per cent for the NDP and 21 perc ent for the Liberals. If the election was held today, the PC’s would come out with a majority.
In Macleans, an article, “Ontario’s Election is about to be a scramble for working class votes”, correctly states that to most people this election is about “affordability of everyday life”. When Doug Ford rails against the “elites” and the establishment he is tapping into the anger of the vast majority who have not seen their wages and living standards improve while corporate profits soar. Today, half of Ontarians survive paycheque to paycheque and more than half the province works in part time precarious work. Job insecurity, stagnant wages, the high cost of living, and massive wealth and income inequality is the reality for most. This material reality correlates to how Canadians view themselves. In 2002, almost 70 per cent of Canadians considered themselves “middle class” but now that number is 43 per cent with about 50 per cent of the population identifying as “working class” or poor. In this context, those parties that rhetorically appeal to the middle class, when fewer and fewer see themselves this way, are set to lose votes. Given this, where exactly do all three parties stand in relation to the needs of the majority of Ontarians?
Ford’s Trump-style anti establishment politics
At the time of writing Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are far ahead in the polls. Ford’s special brand of Trump-style politics has tapped into the anger of the Ontario working class. His populist anti-Liberal rhetoric speaks to millions of workers and youth who are fed up with high hydro rates, Liberal corruption, and a feeling that so-called insiders have all the say at the expense of common people. The comparisons between Doug Ford and Donald Trump mostly speak to the fact that Ford demagogically calls out the corrupt elitist politics that have frustrated workers, who themselves see no change in their day to day situation.
But underneath the thin veneer of Ford’s populism, which proclaims him as the champion of the little guy, lie the interests of big business and capital. Ford’s populism is anti-working class to the core. An article in the Globe and Mail, titled “Many Ontarians will pay a steep price if Doug Ford keeps his budget promises”, details the consequences of his pro austerity platform.
After winning the PC leadership race, Ford scrapped former PC leader Patrick Brown’s commitment to a carbon tax, along with its revenue of around $10 billion. This loss in revenue, combined with his promise to reduce deficits, means that Ford would cut up to $25 billion over the next three years. This amounts to more than one percent of the provincial GDP and at least one percent of Ontario employment (private and public sector), or a conservative estimate of around 75,000 lost jobs. These cuts would be enough to bring on a recession in Ontario. This vicious attack on jobs and the public sector does not include further potential cuts to pay for Ford’s promised corporate tax cuts and other handouts to the rich.
Ford also plans to halt the minimum wage increase and lift rent controls. These are both issues that deeply affect the “day to day affordability” of working class families. For many, Ford’s policies bring back memories of Mike Harris and the vicious austerity inflicted on the public sector in the mid 1990’s.
The Liberals swing to the left
Wynne and the Liberals have come into this election with desperately low popularity ratings. Wynne is seen as Canada’s least popular premier. Between selling off Hydro One and watching families struggle to pay electricity bills, raising the minimum wage and then legislating college teachers back to work, many are beginning to see through the Liberal party’s political opportunism. Struggling to stay in power, Wynne is trying to put forward reforms in the hope that something sticks, but popular opinion suggests that many people are tired of these antics. The simple truth is that many people see through the left phraseology of the Liberal party and realize that a party that stands for the interests of Bay Street cannot also stand for workers.
In a desperate move to regain votes the Liberals have veered to the left. Unveiling their platform on March 8th, Wynne hoped to outflank the NDP with a pharmacare program, free childcare for ages 2.5 to 4 years, increased post secondary grants, dental care reimbursements, and an injection in health care spending.
Yet the promises for free childcare, dental, and pharmacare are partial reforms and far from universal. Many will be waiting until 2020 for their arrival. Wynne’s Ontario Drug and Dental Program will reimburse up to 80 per cent of eligible expenses for those without coverage. However, the plan itself will only cover $400 per person, $600 per couple and $700 for a family of four. A family of four would be left with $175 each for the year for dental if the family is not covered by an employer’s benefits. This dental coverage falls short of basic check ups like routine cleaning and fillings. The Ontario Dental Association writes that the plan doesn’t mean much for families making $30,000 or less, which is one third of Ontarians, who will not have the cash to pay upfront.
To pay for these programs the Liberals plan to take on another round of massive deficit spending. However, the projected numbers of the deficit have been criticized by the Ontario auditor general as a gross underestimation based on what the Liberals have put forward. The Liberal government’s projected deficit of $6.7 billion for 2018-2019 is now estimated to be $11.7 billion. Deficits for the next two years are also underestimated. From 2019 to 2020 the deficit will be $12.2 billion not $6.6 billion, and again from 2020 to 2021 the deficit will be $12.5 billion not $6.5 billion.
In a desperate attempt to stay in power the Liberals are hoping that Keynesian-style deficit financing can win back votes. The problem is that all this debt will have to be repaid one way or another. This will be done by privatizations of the public sector, like what the Liberals did with Hydro One, and in the near future implementing massive austerity in an attempt to balance the books. At the end of the day it is the working class that will pay for these reforms and not the bosses.
From partial to universal
A TVO article titled, “The Biggest Problem for the Liberals and the NDP? They’re too similar”, unfortunately captures the NDP’s political problem. Horwath seems to have set herself the goal of being just incrementally better than the Liberals, but for the rest of Ontario both parties look alike. While the Liberals offer free childcare from 2.5 years to 4 years of age, the NDP is promising to fund free daycare for all kids of poorer parents, and subsidized daycare costs for higher income families at $12 a day. The Liberals have proposed pharmacare covering 4000 drugs for those under 25 and seniors, who are now covered partially through parents, pensions and school insurance. Horwath plans to cover 125 drugs for all.
The polls are fluctuating with the NDP ahead in one, and the Liberals ahead in another. While important reforms like free dental and childcare for those making under $40,000 would improve the lives of many, these razor thin differences with the Liberals are not sufficient enough to guarantee that the anti-Ford vote will coalesce around the NDP. What would set the NDP apart from the Liberals is moving away from partial and incremental reforms to providing universal programs. Universal programs mean that dental and pharmacare are free for all and cover all drugs. Visiting the dentist should be as simple as showing your OHIP card to receive care.
The NDP leadership has also fallen flat on post-secondary education. Their proposed plan is to turn Ontario student loans into grants and allow a rebate on the interest of existing loans. This plan itself says nothing about the increasing tuition rates students face each year. Turning loans into grants won’t do much for tuition fees that are constantly on the rise. Tuition is over $7,500 and rising, while these grants will not exceed $4,000. This plan is also out of touch with what the majority of students want. Last year the Canadian Federation of Students organized a Toronto wide rally for free education. This year the York Federation of Students, the largest student union in Canada representing around 50,000 students, also came out for free education. In February, rank and file activists proposed and passed motions at the federal NDP convention in Ottawa for free education and the abolition of student debt. An NDP government needs to implement free education and abolish all student debt if it is to delineate itself from the Liberals and mobilize young people.
Horwath plans to fund her key social programs for childcare, student grants and buying back Hydro One with a mix of deficit spending and increased corporate taxation. The NDP are pledging to increase corporate taxes by 1.5 percent and increase income taxes for people earning more than $220,000. Such tax increases are likely to elicit protests from corporate Canada, but in reality they are very modest and are lower than the tax rates when the Ontario Liberals first came to power.
To decisively defeat Ford and his anti-establishment rhetoric, Horwath needs to be the anti-establishment left alternative. You cannot defeat the anti-establishment right with a pro-establishment message. Unfortunately the NDP’s platform speaks of the “middle class”, and Horwath goes out of her way to sound moderate. This, combined with a platform that is only incrementally better than the Liberals, makes the NDP leadership look like just another party of the status quo.
Taxing the Rich
While Ford is looking to drastically reduce corporate taxes in the hopes of inviting investment, Horwath aims to increase them and close existing tax loopholes. Given the current capitalist crisis defined by overproduction, lack of capital investment and intensifying protectionism, Horwath must be prepared to face a corporate backlash and capital flight if elected.
Ford’s call to fire Hydro One’s CEO because of exorbitant salaries resonates with many people. Last year Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt was paid $6.2 million. While the talk of firing CEO’s will do nothing to lower electricity costs, Ford reflects the anger that many have felt over skyrocketing hydro bills last year. Families were cutting back on grocery bills and other necessities to meet rapidly increasing hydro rates. Horwath’s plan to slowly buy back the shares of Hydro One and cut 30% of hydro bills is a lackluster approach to working families who are squeezed with hydro costs right now. Instead of buying back shares, Horwath should call for the complete re-nationalization of Hydro with no compensation to millionaire CEOs.
Daily reports of skyrocketing CEO salaries and offshoring billions in unpaid taxes, while most face unemployment, precarious work, high rents, etc., speaks volumes to the massive inequality that exists in society today. Ford is tapping into this anger, while Horwath doesn’t appear to know how to. While the 2018 Ontario NDP platform is a significant improvement over the anaemic 2014 and 2011 platforms, the party brass still see themselves as saviours of a discredited status quo. People want to burn down the establishment. This sentiment can be harnessed with either right wing or left wing politics. Ford understands this, and the NDP needs to understand it too if they are going to beat him.
The role of the labour movement
In the 2014 provincial election, some sectors of the labour movement adopted so-called “strategic voting” against the Hudak Conservatives. This tactic is just pro-Liberal politics by another name. But the outcome of engaging in lesser evilism has strengthened Ford and the PC’s tenfold due to the backlash against Liberal corruption, privatization, and attacks on the unions. In order to beat Ford the leaders of the movement will have to abandon the Liberal party and mobilize rank and file members to support the NDP and demand that it adopt universal programs.
Union heads like Jerry Dias, Hassan Yussuff, and Chris Buckley, have married the union bureaucracy to the Liberal Party. Burcreauts like these are speaking at Liberal conventions and having photo ops with Kathleen Wynne. This mixed message really means one thing: union members should swallow Liberal anti-working class deals instead of fighting against them. During the college workers strike in November 2017, Smokey Thomas could not fault Wynne for passing back-to-work-legislation against striking college workers and went on to say, “If I was the premier and it was down to this particular juncture, I’d do what she’s doing.” Jerry Dias of Unifor is busy raiding other unions rather then organizing the unorganized, like Tim Horton workers who have been attacked by petty bosses; and Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, is busy visiting and speaking at Liberal Party conventions.
There is pent up frustration among the vast majority of workers who face precarious labour and low wages. The labour and student movement can be seriously mobilized to defeat the Liberals and Tories if the union leaders turn their backs on the Liberals. The majority of Ontario is fed up with Wynne’s antics and scandals. Some polls have the Liberals in third place. There is no excuse for union heads to engage in strategic voting. If Ford is elected, the pro-Liberal union leaders will be partially to blame for paralyzing the labour movement and preventing the anti-Ford vote from coalescing around the NDP.
Which way forward?
The possible election of the Doug Ford led Conservatives is a real threat that should not be taken lightly. The victory of Ford would mean a wholesale attack on the working class and its organizations. Unfortunately, the union and NDP leadership do not understand how to repel this attack. Horwath still speaks in a moderate language that is not designed to mobilize people against those who wield power. But all is not lost.
Currently only Doud Ford is capturing the anger against a rigged system. We need to build a mass movement against the status quo that takes its ideas from the left and not the right. This can cut across Ford’s demagoguery. The unions can play an important role mobilizing this. We need to demand that the NDP adopt universal programs, rather than partial reforms, that can actually solve the problems working class people face. This would also serve to underline that the Liberals are no solution in the fight against Ford.
There is still time for the anti Ford vote to coalesce around the NDP and Horwath to win the election like Bob Rae did in 1990. But the Rae experience is very appropriate here. The Rae NDP’s mild reforms elicited a massive red-baiting backlash from the right wing media, and a capital strike from the bosses. This NDP government capitulated, abandoned its key reforms like public auto insurance, and turned to attack the workers via unpaid “Rae days”.
The above facts underline the importance of building a mass movement demanding the NDP adopt universal programs. It helps to defeat Ford now, and sideline the Liberals. But in the event of a Horwath victory it helps push the NDP leadership to go further than their election platform, rather than capitulate to the inevitable corporate attacks. We need a mass movement, based upon socialist ideas, to go on the offensive against the capitalist class.
On the other side, if Ford wins, it is even more important to start building a mass movement. If the NDP’s platform is not seen as being sufficiently different from the corrupt Liberals, and the anti-Ford vote remains divided, we will need a mass movement to oppose his anti-worker government. Either way, the movement needs to begin mobilizing now. Time is running out.