As Doug Ford was declared the new leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, critics and political opponents wasted no time portraying the new party chief as a radical, hard-right conservative who poses a threat to civil liberties and women’s rights.
A statement by the Ontario Liberal Party declared that Ford’s win signalled the Tories had “gone back in time to pick the most conservative leader they could find” and by selecting Ford had in part chosen “religious extremism over the rights of women.”
Omar Khan, VP of engagement for the Ontario Liberals, told CBC News he would no longer refer to the party as the “progressive” conservatives after they chose “the most radical, conservative, right-wing leader in the last, I’d say, 50 years to run their party.”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association suggested the new leader may pose a threat to rights in a tweet saying “We’re gonna need your help,” with a link to their fundraising page.
But some political analysts believe while it’s too early to say how Ford would govern, it’s likely he will be much more moderate than his critics suggest.
“There’s just as much potential that he he would follow the strategic and rational footsteps of [former PC leader Patrick] Brown, his predecessor,” said Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont.
“And on the policy side try to position himself and his party more to the middle.”
De Clercy noted that during the leadership campaign, there was little ideological distance among the candidates.
Kathy Brock, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said he has to bring together factions of the party and appeal to a broad base of voters.
“Doug Ford is a very politically astute person,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that he’s not going to say some things that are polarizing, but he also understands the need to build with different communities.”
Ford himself recently told CBC News that the party is “always going to be progressive” and “have a big social heart for a lot of social issues.”
“But we have to be fiscally conservative,” he said.
Some have likened Ford to U.S. President Donald Trump — a comparison that seems to annoy Ford. While there are similarities in terms of their populist appeal and plain-spoken approach, they differ in some key areas.
“The communities and constituency he plays to aren’t just social conservatives, alienated, angry white men,” Brock said. “He’s made significant inroads into the racialized and various ethnic communities in Toronto.”
Mostly, though, Ford, along with his brother, the late mayor Rob Ford, liked to brand themselves as tax-cutting warriors, fiscal conservatives who believe governments waste too much of taxpayers’ money.
To that end, he has pledged to scrap any carbon tax imposed on the province and, with it, the planned $6 billion of government revenues it would have generated to pay for former leader Brown’s People’s Guarantee platform.
Ford has said he would keep much of the platform, considered to be relatively centrist in its proposals, with a middle-class tax cut, a cut of hydro rates, refunds on child care costs and nearly $2 billion in new funding for mental health.
How Ford would make up for the revenue shortfall, however, is still unclear. He has said only that he will find “efficiencies” in the government and has vowed not to lay off any public servants.
He has also talked about cutting down hospital wait times, ending provincial taxes for people making $30,000 or less a year and allowing private stores to sell marijuana once it’s legalized.
Anti-abortion group expects payback
But where many of his critics and political opponents are most troubled are with Ford’s recent musings on issues like sex education and abortion. This, they say, is proof Ford intends to move the party more to the right to appeal to social conservatives and the religious right.
Ford has said he would review and make changes to the sex-eduction curriculum — a policy that had been championed by his leadership opponent Tanya Granic Allen, who is a favourite of the social conservative wing of the party.
On abortion, he suggested that parents should be consulted before their minor children can access the procedure.
Michael Bryant, president of the CCLA, said it was Ford’s comments on the abortion issue that prompted his organization’s tweet.
“He is the first provincial politician that I can think of in a long time who raised the possibility of putting new restrictions on abortions,” said Bryant, a former Ontario Liberal MPP and attorney general.
When asked, however, Ford has insisted that issue is not “on the top of my priority list.”
Yet it was members of the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition that helped Ford clinch the leadership when their first choice, Granic Allen, dropped off the ballot and they shifted their support to him. The group claimed to have recruited more than 9,000 party memberships for the vote, and has said it expects him to follow through on those pledges.
“I think fears or concerns …. or enthusiastic hope that he might move to the social conservative side of things — there’s some merit for that given what happened in the leadership,” said de Clercy. “But again, a lot depends on how he and his advisers decide to shape the campaign.”
However, PC MPP Sam Oosterhoff said he doesn’t believe Ford could be described as a social conservative but rather as someone who would be more open than his predecessor to hearing other voices in the party.
Can’t be ‘put into a box’
“Doug is not someone that can really be put into a box,” Oosterhoff said.
Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer says Ford ran a relatively moderate, measured and practical leadership campaign.
“It certainly wasn’t an ideological campaign other than a strong commitment to fiscal conservatism and low taxes.”
He said the Liberals are just engaging in fear-mongering, and that when voters start paying attention, they will ask themselves if Ford really looks like the “radical right-wing lunatic” his political opponents are making him out to be.
“And I think the answer is going to be no.”