If you think Ontario voters have taken a sharp turn to the right, you’re far from right.
Yes, Doug Ford’s Tories won a strong re-election victory on June 2, raising their seat total to 83. True, they left the province’s self-styled progressive parties wallowing in defeat and disarray.
But the triumph of the governing Progressive Conservatives is far from reassuring for Ontario’s hard right fringe parties, which won precisely zero seats on election day.
Despite pre-election predictions that they could tap into anti-government, anti-vax, pro-convoy protest votes, the fringe fizzled in Ontario. By contrast, the three opposition parties in the legislature at least have something to show for their losing efforts:
New Democrats dropped to a humbling 31 seats, the Liberals were kept to a humiliating eight ridings, and the Greens were once again held to a single seat, but none was shut out. Even so, their poor showing prompted collective and progressive soul-searching about whether it’s time to “unite the left” — or at least the centre-left.
But that question is best answered with another question: Why not “unite the right” in Ontario?
The answer, for both right and left, is similar: There is more that divides them than unites them.
I’ve written before about the enduring divisions between Liberals and New Democrats. While their election platforms converge around the mushy middle at campaign time, their ideological and tribal divides are deep rooted.
For the far right, it’s all of the above and more — not just policy disagreements but personality conflicts, personal grudges and political paranoia. Which is perhaps why they seemed so unattractive and unelectable in this campaign.
The pandemic brought us the worst of times, which should have been the best of times for protest parties. Instead, it brought out the worst in the fringe parties.
That failure was hardly inevitable. After all, much of the anti-vax animus that motivates the far-right fringe provincially is considered virtually mainstream among conservatives federally.
How then did a provincial premier who embodies a mythical “Ford Nation” steer clear of the poison and paranoia that now animates the nation’s Conservative leadership race? One difference between the federal and provincial parties is that Ford occupies power and Ford isn’t afraid to wield it.
He didn’t hesitate to expel dissident MPPs from the Progressive Conservative caucus if they dared to defy him on COVID-19 and other loyalty litmus tests. They fell one after another, also-rans and footnotes to infighting: MPPs Randy Hillier, Belinda Karahalios, Roman Baber and Rick Nicholls. (Lindsay Park, denounced for misrepresenting her vaccination status, departed.)
Baber entered the federal leadership race talking up freedom from jabs in the arm, but quickly lost his footing.
Karahalios joined hands with her husband Jim — a failed candidate for president of both the provincial and federal Tories — to forge a party of their own where he could finally lay claim to the title. But their New Blue Ontario party won a meagre 2.7 per cent of the popular vote province-wide and was shut out of the legislature.
Nichols ran for the Ontario Party, headed by former Conservative MP Derek Sloan, but lost his seat as his party won a mere 1.8 per cent of the vote province-wide.
Hillier publicly claimed he would spearhead the Ontario First party, loosely affiliated with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. But as Hillier lost his way (and, arguably, his mind) during the Ottawa occupation, he gave up on his political ambitions.
Hillier’s rise and fall is more than a footnote to provincial politics. It is a case study in the ups and downs of big tent parties.
You may vaguely remember him as the publicity-seeking maverick in suspenders who staged raucous protests in the legislature and then ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 2009, when a victorious Tim Hudak tried to make peace with him. In fact, Hillier was first welcomed into the party fold as a leading voice in the fledgling Ontario Landowners Association — a rural protest movement fixated on freedoms and property rights that threatened to siphon off PC votes — by Hudak’s predecessor as leader, John Tory.
Back then, Tory — a centrist Red Tory who later became Toronto’s mayor — thought it best to keep his enemies close in the big tent PC party he was trying to lead to power. Years later, the more right-leaning Ford evicted Hillier from the tent, the better to hold onto power.
As for Karahalios husband and wife, they forged their political partnership immediately upon her expulsion from Ford’s PCs, insisting they were the only true blue party. Taking a page from dissident religious denominations and Marxist-Leninist factions, New Blue castigates its rivals and erstwhile comrades as heathens and heretics.
The party’s website has a section headlined, “Exposing Secret Deals,” taking aim at both Hillier and Sloan as ideological apostates with impure hands. If anyone needed a primer on why fringe parties don’t play well with others, New Blue’s purist sandbox lays out all the dirt.
For all these reasons, the far-right is destined to keep fragmenting — and straying further from Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives as Ford figures out new ways to reassure the mainstream. As to why the federal conservatives are more inclined to keep radicalizing and atomizing, it may be that they lack the discipline of power — and, unlike the premier, the self-discipline to seek it.
Speaking of election 2022, I’ll be moderating Thursday’s Democracy Forum at TMU with strategists from the four major parties comparing notes on how people voted — and why so few did. The Toronto Metropolitan University event is open to the public via Zoom with free registration.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION