Doug Ford’s decision to carve up environmentally protected land for Tory-friendly developers who stood to net billions off its sale shocked even the most politically uninterested out of their torpor. The report from the province’s auditor general about the Ontario premier’s plan found damning evidence of corruption. The integrity commissioner launched an investigation and found the same. The RCMP has since launched a criminal probe. Two staffers and two cabinet ministers resigned over it—and a third minister, Monte McNaughton, left for what he claims are unrelated reasons. Ford’s poll numbers plummeted, and his personal approval recently hit an all-time low as the majority of respondents in one poll found the Greenbelt deal corrupt. The affair was so scandalous that after weeks of defending the plan, Ford reversed course and cancelled it.
Scandalous—but hardly surprising. There may not be enough hard drive space in the known universe to catalogue Ford’s many failures as premier. The Ontario Federation of Labour has a Ford Tracker, which lets visitors “Follow & fight Ford’s decisions that affect you.” It lists detailed, month-by-month fiascos, humiliations, and ignominies. You must click a “Read More” button to see the list, ten at a time. Clicking through, the minutes move slowly. Like it’ll never end. A few dozen clicks in, you start to wonder just how long it’s going to take to get to 2018—or however long back it goes.
But you don’t have to spend the better part of a day clicking to know the Ford government has a long history of failure. It’s a history that runs from the embarrassing but frivolous to the grotesque and serious.
It’s problematic that Ford went a week without using his government phone, had in the past relied on an unsecure Blackberry, and reportedly didn’t know how to use a laptop. He fought the federal government on carbon pricing by forcing gas stations to place decals at the pump blaming the feds for higher gas prices—but they quite literally didn’t stick. That didn’t matter, though, since the courts struck down his plan. He procured new licence plates for the province that weren’t visible in the dark. He pushed a gimmicky buck-a-beer policy that got next to no uptake. He reintroduced King’s Counsel appointments and awarded them to members of his caucus and party donors.
Ford also oversaw a government that failed so badly on long-term care that it led to deaths. He failed autistic children and their families, ignoring his own Autism Advisory Panel’s recommendations. He ended rent control for new units during a housing crisis. He gutted Toronto City Council midway through a local election, directly interfering in the city’s core democratic institution. He cancelled green energy contracts that cost the province hundreds of millions of dollars. He launched a plan to further privatize Ontario’s health care system. He capped public sector wage increases in a bill that was later struck down as unconstitutional. Later, he tried to override the fundamental right of a union to strike, employing the rarely used notwithstanding clause (for a second time) to nullify the Charter right. He cut education funding. He introduced a much-maligned sex ed curriculum. He abandoned the City of Ottawa during the 2022 convoy occupation. He starved the Ontario Disability Support and Ontario Works programs of new funding in the face of an increasing caseload. Earlier this year, a disabled woman was driven to consider assisted death rather than struggle to sort out ODSP.
There are more failures to list, but one can read only so many words in a day. As remarkable as the catalogue of catastrophes is, it’s just as extraordinary that Ford continues to govern Ontario and could still after the next election. Despite persistent calls for his resignation, he remains premier and, at least for now, seems to have a tight grip on his caucus.
Ford was defiant despite the recent Greenbelt reversal. He insists he doesn’t govern by polls and he could still win an election today. That may be true. He’s won two already—both majorities. His second win was bigger than his first despite his pandemic mismanagement, including AWOL stints.
Ford came to power and remained there thanks to a confluence of events it would be hard to recreate: the resignation of Tory leader Patrick Brown just ahead of the election amidst allegations of sexual misconduct, a sliver-thin party leadership victory, voter fatigue with the Ontario Liberals, opposition party lethargy and strategic errors, and vote splitting among electors who could agree they didn’t want Ford but couldn’t agree on who they’d rather have.
The question now isn’t just how a province like Ontario—the most populous province in the country, home to Toronto, the economic engine and cultural capital of the country—ended up with a guy like Doug Ford as premier. The real question is: How do you get rid of him?
Ford is emblematic of a politics of complacency rooted in conservative orthodoxy and soft, phony populism—as if small government and low taxes can solve the multiple, intersecting crises we face so long as the orthodoxy comes with a smile and a double-double. When combined with an electoral system that favours parties with the capacity to target a narrow plurality of voters in the right place, it’s hard to dislodge a government like Ford’s, particularly when the opposition parties underperform.
Longevity despite government corruption, incompetence, wretched policy, and ethical breaches isn’t new in national and sub-national politics in Canada. The country was founded on scandal. The Pacific Scandal of 1873 saw the country’s founding prime minister, John A. Macdonald, resign after his government took an election fund kickback in exchange for awarding a contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1878, Macdonald won a majority and would go on to win the next three elections in a row. We put him on the $10 bill.
For years, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien was haunted by allegations of questionable real estate dealings that came to be known as Shawinigate and by the Sponsorship Scandal. The Liberals managed to govern through them both until Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin, lost in 2006.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, which replaced the Martin government, weathered the election-spending “In and Out” fiasco, the Robocall scandal, and the Couillard Affair, in which then foreign minister Maxime Bernier left classified military documents in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Harper also prorogued Parliament to skirt accountability around the government’s treatment of detainees in Afghanistan. Despite all of this, and more, Harper managed to hang to power for nearly a decade.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has faced several scandals and ethical lapses, including two regarding SNC Lavalin (one about campaign donations and the other about interference with the attorney general’s office) and a visit to the Aga Khan’s private island. For all his fumbles, Trudeau held on to government in 2019 and 2021, despite winning fewer votes than the federal Conservatives in each. By 2025, the year of the next scheduled election, the Trudeau government will have been in power for a decade.
Voters in Canada are patient and forgiving—until they’re not. Perhaps “patient” isn’t the right word. “Long suffering” might be better. Old wisdom says that governments are not defeated; they defeat themselves. They get arrogant, tired, sloppy; voters come to associate them with everything that’s gone wrong during their tenure, whether it was their fault or not. The 1980s Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney is a textbook example of the phenomenon. After winning back-to-back majorities in 1984 and 1988, the party was reduced to two seats in the House of Commons in the 1993 election, just months after Kim Campbell took over from Mulroney.
Ford has managed to leverage the political upheaval from voter unhappiness into a winning formula. In the 2018 Ontario election, after fifteen years in power, the provincial Liberals were wildly unpopular. The PCs won seventy-six seats and formed a majority government with 40.5 percent of the vote, compared to the New Democratic Party’s forty seats and 33.6 percent vote share. Turnout was 56.7 percent. The vast majority of voters—nearly 60 percent of them—preferred someone other than Ford as premier, but the province ended up with him nonetheless.
The 2022 election told a similar story, with Ford turning a 40.8 percent vote share into an even bigger majority, with eighty-three seats. The NDP and Liberals managed 23.7 percent and 23.9 percent respectively, and the Greens came in at just under 6 percent. This time, however, turnout was a dismal 43.5 percent. That meant the Ford government won a mere 18 percent of eligible voter support.
In both elections, particularly in 2022, the opposition parties were so busy fighting one another that Ford’s win became that much easier. As Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said to NDP leader Andrea Horwath at the time, “Every time you attack me . . . Doug Ford smiles.” That was true. And vice versa, of course. The two sides were fighting for the centre and centre-left vote, which was split then and is still split now.
While the centre and centre-left vote is sundered, the PCs will enjoy an electoral advantage, since voters will divide themselves between the Liberals and the NDP, preventing either from winning enough votes to unseat Ford. If the vote begins to coalesce around either the NDP or the Liberals, the PC government’s prospects will change, but that isn’t quite happening yet. And it may not if the opposition parties, particularly once the Liberals choose a new leader, fight amongst themselves as much as, or more than, they fight the premier. For now, Ford and his government remain in a comfortable—if not iron-clad—place. And Ford knows it.
Voters are angry, tired, and disaffected. They don’t see themselves in their province’s politics. For years, people have fought to get through the day and believe that Queen’s Park has left them behind. For many, Ford speaks to their struggles—and promises to meet their needs and interests. But there’s more to it than that. Cynicism, alienation, and the shortcomings of the opposition parties have also contributed to Ford’s electoral success. Continued political disappointment and the structural exclusion of people from political life depresses political action, drives down electoral turnout, and exacerbates poor governance.
While people tune out politics, no opposition party has yet rallied enough voters and convinced them that it is the alternative to Ford. Each thinks it ought to be them and not the other side. Of course they do—it’s their job. But the effect of doing that job and following immediate interests is that Ford obtains an electoral advantage. This is an old problem in multi-party single member plurality (first-past-the-post) electoral systems, one that Ford and his PCs are counting on.
The forty-fourth Ontario election is scheduled for the summer of 2026. That’s over two and a half years away. The New Democrats elected a new leader, Marit Stiles, last February. She’s breathed new life into the party and used Ford’s Greenbelt failures to hammer the premier. The Liberals are set to elect their own new head in December, and they find themselves neck and neck with the NDP in the polls despite being leaderless. But Ford and his Tories still enjoy more than a ten-point projected lead on each of them.
The Greenbelt scandal has yet to reach its apogee, but Ford said he isn’t worried about the scandal. And he, while cynical, is right not to worry too much for the moment. But between now and the next chance to hold his government to account at the ballot box lies what amounts to decades in political time. Lots can happen in two and a half years—scandals add up, failures start sticking to you. Voters do eventually tend to get tired and fed up with governments. The PCs governed Ontario uninterrupted between 1943 and 1987 after initially replacing a Liberal grouping that had decayed over the years while in power and was later reduced, like its successors decades later, to third position in the legislature.
It’s hard—and indeed chilling—to imagine a PC government in Ontario lasting over four decades today. It’s worse to imagine this one lasting another month, let alone much longer. But Ford and his side remain political survivors with an enviable electoral advantage and just enough shame to appear to care. That is a dangerous, often successful, combination that Ontarians may have to live with for the foreseeable future.