AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
On Thursday night, voters in the Canadian province of Ontario, the largest in the country, comprising well over a third of the national population went to the polls and overwhelmingly reelected their Conservative government. The Progressive Conservative party, led by the boisterous Doug Ford, the brother of the late populist Mayor of Toronto, whose brand of politics, “Ford Nation” has sought to unite blue collar white voters with middle class Asian and ethnic voters against the dominance of the urban liberals of downtown Toronto and the power of unions. It is an unusual coalition, one the national Conservative Party only mastered once, in 2011, which is coincidentally the only time they have won a majority in Canada in the last 35 years.
Despite a four-year campaign of vilification by the Toronto and Ottawa press, this week that coalition delivered for Ford, whose party won 83 of the 124 seats up for election, compared to 31 for the socialist New Democratic Party and a mere 8 for the local branch of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which previously ran Ontario for 15 years from 2003 to 2018. Most importantly for Prime Minister Trudeau, in what had become a proxy battle over a ban on private handguns, the voters overwhelmingly rejected further restrictions. Ford’s victory produced reactions American conservatives will be all too familiar with: accusations of voter suppression, demands to change the electoral system, and threats to move to another province. The absurdity of the voter suppression charges is clear given that Ford’s party defeated its nearest rival by a margin of 17% of the popular vote. But the claim also highlights that the obsession with electoral systems as the cause for political defeat is not merely an American phenomenon. Liberals’ reaction to losing was not to ask how they could win over more voters, but to try to figure out a system whereby their existing support would be sufficient to win. In this case, the exercise was as futile as the year Democrats spent obsessing over H.R.-1 in the United States. In the case of Ontario, it was arguably worse. The NDP and Liberals spent the campaign arguing over who was best positioned to defeat the Conservatives, with the result that their nasty, issue-less campaign for second place more or less resulted in a tie for third.
If Democrats might have a lesson to learn from the disaster which befell the center-left in Canada’s largest province, there is inspiration to be drawn for Republicans from the coalition Ford built. The Ford brothers were treated as uncouth, almost “white trash” outsiders by the Conservative establishment in Canada, with Doug Ford’s brother in particular attacked for having recovered from drug addiction. Yet they succeeded where the more upscale, well-dressed Conservatives failed. In particular, the Fords demonstrated that rather than being diametrically opposed constituencies, as the Romney campaign and the RNC autopsy believed in 2012, many working-class whites and non-whites have more in common with each other than either does with wealthy urban white liberals. In the case of Ontario, the Progressive Conservatives understood that Sikh parents whose families came to Canada to give their children a better life and formerly unionized laborers in rural Ontario both wanted schools to be open, businesses free to operate, and a government that worked for them rather than sought to “protect” them from themselves. By trying to label opposition to COVID-19 restrictions as “white supremacy,” the Liberals and their allies actually alienated non-white voters, without ever asking them whether they wanted their schools closed, or police defunded. When a Liberal member of Parliament accused Ford of “crimes against humanity” for not doing more to tackle climate change, this crossed the line into farce.
While politics is different in Canada, the issues Ford emphasized for his coalition, including crime, are universal. In particular, a provincial ban on handguns became a major issue in the campaign. Liberal leader Stephen Del Duca proposed a ban on private handguns across the Province if the Liberals won. Doug Ford made opposition to further gun control a major issue. On June 2, Del Duca lost his own seat by a margin of 17%, while the Liberals won a mere 8 seats.
This is a shot across the bow of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government, which recently proposed a nationwide ban on the sale of handguns in the aftermath of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. That handguns were not used in the shooting, nor have they been used in any in Canada, is beside the point. Yet, Del Duca’s failure to use the issue in Ontario indicates that this gimmick may backfire. Ontario is far from the most pro-gun or right-wing province of Canada. On the contrary, the ability of the Liberals to dominate Ontario at the Federal level is what allowed them to maintain power in 2019 and 2021 despite losing the popular vote. In 2019, the Liberals won 79/121 seats in the province with 41.6% of the vote, while in 2021 they managed 78/121 with a mere 39.3%.
The core of Liberal strength in Ontario has been built on successful portrayals of the Federal Conservatives as a scary “foreign” force of prairie populists out of touch with “civilized” sentiment in Toronto. Liberals have sought to contrast the “woke” Ontarians with their less sophisticated compatriots. This manifested in a willingness to mobilize the power of the state against ordinary people when the Canadian government, spearheaded by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, froze the bank accounts of anyone who donated to support truckers who went on strikes to protest COVID-19 mandates. The handgun ban is yet another effort to do so.
The cost of demonizing large sections of the country has been to destroy the Liberal Party in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. But with the crushing rejection of the efforts of the local Liberals to use COVID-19 and gun control to beat Doug Ford, there is reason to believe the shelf-life of this strategy is running out. Recent polls have shown the Liberals trailing the Conservatives despite the Conservative Party lacking a leader. And as was the case when Terry McAuliffe tried to use similar gimmicks against Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, voters seem to be sick of it.
Canada is still a long way from a conservative revolution, but the elections in Ontario, and the impending right-wing landslide in historically left-leaning Quebec this fall, suggest Canadian progressivism has peaked. Voters are tired of gimmicks, and when woke culture war gimmickry is all the left can offer, they can expect to lose as they did in Ontario last week.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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