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Progressive Conservative Party Leader Doug Ford at Canadian Energy Strategies Inc in Kitchener, Ont., on May 12.Nicole OSBORNE/The Canadian Press

Remember Doug Ford? The old Doug Ford, I mean. The Doug Ford who wanted to “stop the gravy train” at Toronto City Hall. The Doug Ford who crusaded against overspending and waste. The Doug Ford who claimed that he and his brother Rob, the mayor, had saved the city more than a billion dollars.

Like him or not, you knew where he stood. He stood for the long-suffering taxpayer. He stood for efficient, limited government. As he put it in his memoir with Rob, Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Mission, their movement was about “standing up to the political elite; the same old, same old; wasted money; and unaccountable and unreachable leadership.”

Well, that man appears to have vanished. A much different Doug Ford is leading the Ontario Progressive Conservatives into the June 2 provincial election. The new Mr. Ford is a proud champion of big government.

His “Get it done” campaign promises lavish outlays on everything from highways and subways to hospitals and northern development. His “Build Ontario” plan “will help bring prosperity everywhere, for everyone.” Instead of denouncing previous governments for spending like a drunken sailor, he denounces them for decades of “underspending and underinvestment” on health care. The new-model Ford is much more about spending your money than saving it.

The election budget he thrust into the shop window for voters last month boasts that “our government is making record capital investments” in Ontario – a cool $158-billion worth over 10 years. While the long-suffering taxpayers are getting a gimmicky rebate for a cancelled licence-sticker fee, some pocket money for a summer “staycation” and, for those with low incomes, an expanded tax credit, he has quietly dropped a pledge he made in his first bid for election to bring in a 20-per-cent middle-class tax cut.

The old Doug Ford might have said that when governments spend more than they collect year upon year, the result is ruination. The new Doug is not so fussed. The budget puts off balancing the books – once a north star for avowed conservatives like him – for another day, just as the previous, Liberal, government did. Same old, same old.

The fear that Mr. Ford would govern as a penny-pinching, slash-and-burn, government-hating premier was misplaced. Quite the opposite has happened. Mr. Ford is climbing aboard the gravy train and throwing it into high gear, tooting the whistle as he goes.

Of course he is far from the first political leader to be co-opted by government. Once ensconced in office, most find it much more pleasant to announce programs than to cancel them. Given a choice between cutting the ribbon on a new train station and confronting a crowd of government workers furious about having their salaries frozen, they tend to take the smoother path. Leaders of all stripes spent big to confront the pandemic and many found they got rather used to it. A new generation of conservatives, from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, have abandoned all fiscal prudence and opened up the spigot.

The result is that voters in Canada’s most populous province face a choice among three parties of big government: the PCs under the new, let-’er-rip Mr. Ford; the Liberals, who managed to double the provincial debt in their last stretch in office: and the NDP, who are, after all, the NDP. Despite the big hole Ontario finds itself in after years of deficit spending and then pandemic mega-spending, the state of government finances has been a complete non-issue in this campaign. The parties barely mention it.

That may not matter to some voters. Ontario, they will reason, needs to invest in the future. It needs more subways, more commuter trains, a more resilient health system. So it’s a good thing that Mr. Ford has abandoned his tough talk about reining in government. It just means he is accepting reality.

But if all the parties are trying to outdo each other with spending promises, and none stands for restraint, it is easy to see where it might lead: a government that is so burdened by debt that it can’t actually afford to do all the good things voters want.

Old Doug Ford may have exaggerated the extent of waste at city hall; he may have exaggerated what he and his brother did to tame it, too. But sometimes he had a point. Government, unchecked, can run away with itself. New Doug seems to have forgotten that.

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