How to Translate Populism into 2022 Votes

How does a government convert high polling numbers during a pandemic into re-election nearly two years from now? The Ford government finds itself asking this question daily, and now it will make choices in part to navigate its way to a second term.

To that end the government may abandon the controversial but ideologically consistent promises from year one. The PCs will probably forget about their plans to balance the budget, instead spending at will to curry favour with voters. But they may also surprise many by finding the sweet spot of announcements that are both good policy and good politics.

Case in point, going into the August long weekend the province announced that hunting double-crested cormorants would be legal for the first time in Ontario starting this fall. A single cormorant eats a pound of fish per day, which puts a big dent in local fish populations. The birds populate in groups and their toxic excrement wipes out vegetation and trees along entire waterfronts. They are destroying wildlife, leaving everywhere from Point Pelee to the Leslie Street Spit looking like post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Allowing these birds to be hunted creates economic activity, pleases hunters and anglers, protects vulnerable wildlife, and saves the government from having to control the bird populations themselves as was previously the case. Plain and simple, this is good public policy. However, the original idea, first floated by the government in January of 2019, did not check the good politics box.

The proposed hunting season overlapped with cottage and tourism season, likely to create complaints about noise and clog up waterways since cormorants can be hunted from stationary boats. Hunters were also allowed to kill up to 50 cormorants a day, drawing ire from environmentalists who do not mind seeing fish and wildlife die en masse but do have an issue seeing it happen to the culprits. In the recent announcement, both issues were rectified with the hunting season limited to the fall months and the bag limit reduced to 15 birds a day.

Essentially, the Ford government kept the popular parts and dropped the controversial aspects. Even though you would never cook with cormorants, this recipe of policymaking is key to re-election. For the remaining 23 months of the mandate expect this playbook to be trotted out time and time again. The days of a conservative government making tough choices to balance the budget will be few and far between.

The key when embracing populist policy is to do so in a way that limits the damage to the treasury or the party’s reputation. As COVID-19 related announcements end, the government needs to pursue ideas that are relatively cheap, enhance consumer experiences, and most importantly appear to be common sense to most Ontarians. When the Wynne government dipped its toe in the waters of populism in 2018, they attempted to give seniors a tax credit to pay others to shovel their driveways or mow their lawns. Fiscally speaking, it would cost the treasury millions and it solved a problem no one really had. In other words, it failed on both counts.

Instead, the Ford government needs to remember its days of ending public monopolies on cannabis retail and restoring municipal veto powers over renewable energy projects. While the government considers its options to get the economy back on track and starts to think about its 2022 election platform, it can keep its Ministers and the media occupied with policies and ideas that everyday Ontarians can get behind and understand. The best of these ideas will be the ones wanted and desired by those directly affected.

Sure, it can be novelty ideas like allowing drinking in parks, but it can also be more legitimate reforms like allowing restaurants to continue to deliver alcohol with takeout well after the pandemic. It can take the form of aggressively pursuing WiFi on GO trains to help people with their commutes — when they finally return to making commutes. It can be legalizing online gaming to allow people to better enjoy the return of sports without having to don a mask to buy a Pro-Line ticket. On a more ideological level, the desire to remain popular can permeate larger public policy decisions. It is the same logic that saw the Ford government tackle high child-care costs by crediting families for their child-care expenses, whatever form that took, instead of subsidizing daycare centres directly.

Benefitting the most number of people in a way that they can see and feel may very well become the hallmark of the Ford government, but it also means legacy building transformative program changes have already had their moment in the sun. Do not expect a new run of year one policies like strategic mandate agreements for post-secondary institutions or streamlining the province’s health-care regime into a one-stop shop Ontario Health Team system. Instead, in these areas expect one-time funding grants for students to re-train or funds to address mental health challenges instead.

The populist policies are not necessarily bad investments or bad ideas, many of them will address legitimate grievances and make many Ontarians happy with their government. But, governing by popular opinion will not leave a lasting legacy for future governments, Progressive Conservative or otherwise, to build upon. As a colleague used to say to me, populism is not a governing philosophy. However, as we are about to find out, it may very well be an electoral one.