Thoughts on the 2022 Ontario provincial election.
Ontario’s 2018 provincial election had a great turnout. Or at least relatively great. It was a 20-year-high but still only 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. As I’ve remarked before, roughly 40% of people living in a democracies today are never going to vote no matter who is running or what the issues are. They’ve checked out.
People expected a big dip in voter turnout this time around and they got it. Preliminary reports I’ve seen say that it dropped below 50% (update: it was worse than that). This was the first time I’ve ever voted where there was literally not a single person either voting or in line to vote at the polling station I attended. Yes it was an advance poll, but it’s still something I’ve never seen before and I usually vote at advance polls.
One of the factors playing into the low turnout was the fact that the election was over almost as soon as it was called. Pollsters were practically guaranteeing another Ford majority weeks out from election day, and the only story that pundits were left to discuss was who was going to form the official opposition. It’s pretty rare for election results to feel so predetermined. If nothing else the media love a horserace and are often accused of trying to whip one up when none exists. This time they didn’t even try. I can’t remember the last election I’ve voted in that played out so predictably.
It was also an invisible election. Again this year the only party that had canvassers going door-to-door in my riding were for the Greens. The Greens were also the only party I got a phone call from. Perhaps everyone else had just given up (Mike Schreiner, the provincial Green leader, won my riding in a landslide).
But I was called nearly every other day for the last two weeks to take part in a poll. Somebody was working hard.
While the result was anything but a surprise, the fact that it played out so predictably does seem to call for a bit of comment. I don’t think Doug Ford was all that popular with Ontarians and his record in office was nothing to get excited about. The deficit in 2022 (for those who still care about such things) ballooned even beyond what had been run in the COVID years, all while Ford pulled silly stunts like cancelling vehicle registration fees. He’d cut back on services, boosted some shady development deals (the boondoggle of highway 413), bungled the response to COVID (though arguably no worse than anyone else), and still won smashingly, facing no real opposition. Why?
I’ll take a shot at explaining, but before I do I want to just add something on the highway 413 fuss. I totally understand people who think the whole thing is rotten, but what I don’t think a lot of critics appreciate is just how dirty a business real estate development is. It’s all like this. Development and infrastructure is one of the areas where public and private actors work together very closely, and at every level — municipal, provincial, and federal — there’s a lot of pay-to-play going on. I don’t know how much of that was happening here, but it’s the nature of the business. No one should be surprised at it.
But back to Ford’s success. Some of this can be attributed to what are global trends. For example the way the right is killing it on the culture war front, and the continuing divide of political parties into those of the private sector and those of the state. With regard to the latter point, it was striking that a number of unions come out in support of Ford, but these were all private sector unions, specifically in the building trade. No public sector unions backed him. I think that tells you something about where the new line is being drawn. And given how much support I think there is for the Tories among a lot of public sector union members I think things are looking even worse for the left on this front.
Another factor putting the wind in Ford’s sails was the hangover from the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne years. It’s hard to overstate how deeply those two were disliked, and the metaphor of the Liberals still being in the penalty box held true. Voters can hold long grudges. Federally, the Liberals are still running against Stephen Harper, and even Brian Mulroney, while in the U.S. I imagine Donald Trump is going to occupy a similar place for many years to come. Meanwhile, the presence of Justin Trudeau (and his partnership with Jagmeet Singh) on the national stage only added fuel to the Tory fire. Again I don’t think you can overstate how sick many people are of Trudeau.
Then there is the first-past-the-post electoral system. The Tories took roughly 2/3 of the seats with just over 40% of the vote. The Liberals, NDP, and to a lesser extent the Greens split the anti-Tory vote, while Ford had nothing to fear on his right. I had to go online just to find out who the New Blue, Ontario, and Ontario First Party even were.
Veteran NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal newbie Steven Del Duca, who both resigned as party leaders after the election (Del Duca even failing to win his own seat), were criticized for not being more inspiring, not to mention better prepared, but I don’t think they were going anywhere regardless. My big question going into the election was whether, given this state of affairs, there was any chance the Greens could make a breakthrough. They did not, only holding on to their single seat. At this point, and after their disastrous showing in the 2021 federal election, you really have to ask whether they have any role to play in Canadian politics at all. It’s not just that people aren’t voting for environmental issues, they are actively voting against them (see the union support for the highway-building project). I don’t see where there are any hopeful takeaways from that.