No one on the Left can afford to ignore the possibility that the next Ontario government will be a hard-right Conservative majority led by Doug Ford. While having no illusions in the commitment of the Liberal or New Democratic Parties to a more socially and ecologically just Ontario, a Doug Ford government would represent a major step back. Social service cuts, intensified racial and gender oppression, and attacks on unions and the poor will be the order of the day. It is urgent that union, community, and student activists begin organizing resistance now in the event Ford does win the June election. To that end, the New Socialist webzine is launching a symposium over the next six weeks, with contributors from a variety of movement organizing backgrounds, to discuss building the resistance. Our opening contribution is from John Clarke, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
By JOHN CLARKE
With a June Ontario election looming, it is clear that the most likely outcome is a Doug Ford-led Tory majority government. I will be the first to agree that this lamentable result might still be avoided. These are volatile times and prevailing moods can shift. However, the Ford threat is serious enough that unions and social movements would be well advised to think now in terms of how we would respond to a vicious Tory regime. It seems rather absurd to wait for the day after a grim election result to ask ourselves “what do we do now?”
The Tory threat is not just to be seen in poll results(1), although these have been pretty consistent. The bigger issue is that the Liberals seem to have simply used up their shelf life. They have held power in Ontario for fifteen years and these are not the times for political dynasties spanning decades. Pollsters and doorknockers all report a sense of discontent and a desire for change that, for the most part, is going to the Tories. Ford’s core base is, of course, attracted to his preposterous right-wing populist posturing, but even those who are not so sure, are not looking the Tory gift horse in the mouth because they just want the Liberals to go.
Without any doubt, Ford is able to attain such support because of the lack of a serious and convincing challenge on the left. If we were to imagine an Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) that had experienced the kind of political rejuvenation that has taken place in the British Labour Party, then things could be very different. In such a situation, the NDP’s base would have expanded and its ability to contest an election would be far more robust. At the same time, a clear rejection of the austerity consensus would bring out many who would not otherwise vote and even draw votes away from Ford. Some working-class voters who are fooled by his anti-establishment posing would be drawn to a serious fighting alternative on the left. As it is, the NDP, apart from its core support base, is mainly vying for centre-left voters with one foot in the Liberal camp.(2)
Austerity and Social Backwardness
With these currents working in his favour, we should consider just how much of an intensification of the agenda of austerity a government led by Ford would represent. While the Wynne Liberals have, under great pressure, made recent concessions on the minimum wage and workers’ rights, it would be absurd to take their progressive claims seriously. In health care and education, their austerity track record is worse than most other provinces. People on social assistance are poorer today than when the Harris Tories left office in 2003. Still, there is no doubt that Ford would move quickly to deepen the attack. We could expect rapid-fire social cutbacks and austerity measures impacting the lives of millions of people.(3) The war on the poor would be taken to considerably more extreme lengths we may be sure.
In power, Ford would not confine himself to measures of austerity. He would want to demolish any limited environmental protections and his pronouncement on the Ring of Fire shows the utter contempt he would have for Indigenous rights. (4) We would also expect the Ford Tories to fan the flames of racism and intolerance while intensifying police repression and unleashing law-and-order crackdowns. Ford even had the gall to appear at an event in Toronto’s Somali community and call for the restoration of infamous police unit, the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), that was responsible for the ongoing persecution of racialized and, particularly, black communities.(5) Ford would, in fact, unleash a wave of social backwardness at every level. He has even expressed his hostility to life saving safe injection sites as a response to the deadly opioid crisis.(6) Naturally, Ford is also utterly committed to driving back the gains that have been made by low-paid workers and wants to bring the process of increasing the minimum wage to a halt.(7) Truly, across a broad front, we are looking at the prospect of a deeply and viciously reactionary Tory regime, led by a man with unrivalled credentials when it comes to social regression.
Responding to the Ford Threat
Obvious and clear comparisons can be made between the kind of government we would see under Doug Ford and the Mike Harris Tory regime from 1995 to 2003. During those years, there was considerable and sometimes very powerful resistance. However, if we are going to pose the question of how a hard-right Ford government could be effectively challenged, it is vital to take a critical look at the social mobilization against Harris. Anyone who participated in the Ontario Days of Action, in which a series of cities saw strikes and huge protests, would have to readily agree that the glimpse of working-class power they provided was hugely inspiring. At the same time, however, the actions were carried out under the leadership of a divided and vacillating trade union leadership. The economic disruption they unleashed was never presented as a means of compelling a retreat on the part of the Harris Tories and the language of moral pressure was maintained. Each Day of Action was concluded with no sense of what would follow and no plan to escalate towards a province wide general strike was ever developed. The massive potential of the mobilization was bureaucratically throttled.
Looking at the present state of the trade union movement in Ontario, it is clear that we are in even worse condition now than when the challenge to the Harris Tories was set in motion. That is why it is essential to bring together those unions, union locals, community organizations and individual activists who share the perspective that the Ford threat must be prepared for and that, in the event that the threat becomes a reality, we must work for a common front of resistance to his government that can create the conditions of economic disruption and political crisis that could defeat the Tories and prevent the implementation of their vile agenda.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has called for an initial allies meeting to discuss this idea. It is hoped that a caucus for serious, united working-class action can be created that will take the fight to Ford during the election, propose demands that reflect the real interests of workers and communities and prepare for the possibility of a Tory government. It is to be expected that a hard-right regime run by Ford would move onto the attack ferociously and rapidly. The period of shocked passivity that followed the election of the Harris Tories in 1995 can’t be allowed to happen again. We must call on the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), its affiliates, labour councils, and community organizations to respond seriously from the outset. As a fightback emerges, the role of the caucus that has been proposed would be to press for escalation and forms of action that were based on real resistance and fighting to win, as opposed to forms of moral pressure and appeals.
As this is written, teachers in the US have shaken the establishment with a rank-and-file-led upsurge no one saw coming. In various parts of the world, including here in Ontario, the struggle against the supposed inevitability of low-paid precarious work has achieved more than many thought possible. At York University, the members of CUPE 3903 are striking to win. Even those abandoned to homelessness in Toronto have been able to fight back effectively against social abandonment. There is no reason to despair in the face of even the most reactionary forces of neoliberal austerity. The working class in Ontario has the power and ability to defeat a right-wing Tory attack but that power has to be set in motion. If we don’t want to accept a huge defeat at the hands of a regime led by a buffoon, we need to prepare for a fightback that can stop Doug Ford.
John Clarke is an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty