John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) reports:
After fifteen years of Liberal Governments in Ontario, the Conservatives are back in power. The Liberal Party, ever the political chameleon, delivered a brand of austerity by stealth in progressive packaging. Now, however, the newly enthroned Tories will dispense with such pretensions and intensify the attack dramatically.
In March of this year, the Ontario Tories, still in opposition, went through a leadership race that saw the Party Establishment lose out to maverick right wing populist, Doug Ford. Ford is a Toronto multimillionaire and former City Councillor whose deceased brother, Rob, made international headlines for his extraordinary behaviour while Mayor of the City. Comparisons abounded between Doug Ford and Donald Trump by no means without justification. Both are bigoted right wing rich men who make entirely groundless claims to speak for ordinary people. Both are attack dogs for the most ruthless and reckless elements within the ruling class. Outside of the suburban Toronto district he lives in and a quirky support base in the Tory Party, however, Ford’s populist following is probably less significant than that of Trump.
June Election Campaign
As the campaign for the June 7 Ontario Election unfolded, it was abundantly clear that the Liberals were a spent force. That they would be decimated was a foregone conclusion. The social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), starting in third place, had consistently failed to offer a political alternative clearly to the left of the Liberals. No Corbyn like move to the left or rejuvenation of the Party base had occurred. Nonetheless, with the Liberals in trouble and a right wing Tory Party moving towards victory, the NDP leadership made a political calculation to move left. Several candidates with serious social activist backgrounds set a different stamp on the campaign. It was too little too late but the NDP doubled its number of seats in the Legislature and had the Ford Tories worried for a period. The Liberals were obliterated and reduced to a mere six seats that fail to qualify them for official party status. Ford won with a campaign that offered few details of his intentions and set of stock phrases drawn from the populist song book.
Since taking office at the end of June, it is clear that Ford will move quickly and ruthlessly with an agenda of hard right austerity and social backwardness. A freeze on hiring in the public sector has been announced. A planned increase in the minimum wage will be cancelled. They have taken on a high priced official to ‘go over the books’ and look for ‘efficiencies.’ Their new adviser on healthcare has a brutal track record in closing and privatizing hospitals. They have removed themselves from climate change initiatives that will mean billions of dollars in revenues from the Federal Government will be lost. Already we know that this will mean the cancellation of desperately needed repairs to schools and public housing. Timid measures of civilian police oversight have been cancelled. Ford has announced that Ontario will remove itself from agreements around locating and sheltering refugees, with vile racist language on ‘illegal border crossers.’ Seeking to ensure opposition to their agenda is prevented, the Tories have announced that the City Council in Toronto (the capital of Ontario and by far the largest city in Canada), will be reduced in size by almost half.
This last week, the new Minister of Community and Social Services announced that some improvements in the rules for the sub poverty social assistance system in Ontario that the Liberals had planned would be ‘put on hold.’ A 3% increase in social assistance rates was also cut in half with the result that the first yearly increase above the rate of inflation since 1994 will not happen. The Tories also made the decision to reverse their campaign promise to maintain the basic income pilot project the Liberals had recently set in motion. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) that I am part of, has taken a strongly critical position on basic income and disagreed with those on the left who see it as a progressive policy alternative. That being said, however, there is nothing to celebrate in the Tory decision to kill the pilot. The four thousand people who had been selected to be part of the test for the next three years were receiving income significantly above the level of social assistance and had planned their lives accordingly. They are now being cynically and disgustingly abandoned. Far more dreadful, though, is the obvious reasoning at work here. The Tories have no patience with an experiment with reduced conditionality. They want to double down on a traditional poor law based persecution of people on social benefits. Over the next hundred days, they intend to craft a package of right wing ‘welfare reform’ that, the Minister hints, will include a crackdown on ‘benefit fraud’ and a drive to force people into the most exploitative jobs on offer from which disabled people will not be exempt. It is a classic war on the poor by making the system of income support as inadequate, punitive and precarious as possible so as the create climate of desperation that forces people to compete for low wage precarious employment.
“Days of Action”
The obvious question that emerges is that of a working class opposition to the class war Tory regime. From 1995 to 2003, Ontario experienced a very right wing Tory Government that people compared to Thatcher and Reagan. There was very serious social mobilization against it. The trade unions called a series of ‘Days of Action’ that involved local general strikes (though that name was never used) and mass protests that were among the largest in Canadian history. These powerful actions might well have stopped the Tories but they were not escalated to the kind of province wide level that could have achieved this. Today, it must said with deep regret, the immediate prospects of any comparable fight back are poor. A big ‘Fight for $15 and Fairness’ campaign has been taken up that forced concessions out of the Liberals but it will not by itself be anywhere close to strong enough to beat back the Ford Tories. The trade unions in general are not advancing plans for a major fight back. Locally, based community meetings are being called and every effort must be taken up to bring together anti cuts coalitions that can begin to take to the streets against the Tory attack.
In truth we face dreadful attacks and resistance is emerging from a very inadequate starting point. That must change quickly and it can as workers and communities under attack look for the means to fight back. A lot of door knocking and a great number of meetings in union locals and local neighbourhoods lie ahead of us. However, the starting point must be that we set a goal of actually stopping the Ford Government, as opposed to offering token forms of protest and moral indignation. We should have the objective of building a social movement that goes beyond the above mentioned Days of Action during the 90s. We must create a common front of working class people that can inflict a level of economic disruption and political crisis on the Tories that prevents the implementation of their vile agenda. We must bring their Government down.
Ford is carrying out his attacks in the context of international neoliberal austerity. Ontario is by far the most populous Canadian Province with the largest economy. A major defeat at the hands of a Tory austerity regime here will have adverse international implications. On the other hand, we have the chance to build a successful struggle here that would create a model in Ontario that others could look to. The stakes are very high and the dangers very great but Doug Ford’s preposterously labelled ‘Government for the People’ can and must be beaten.