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‘We’re the party saying yes.” That slogan, from a Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario campaign ad, neatly sums up how Premier Doug Ford and his team transformed their image, and also their reality. It’s why they cruised to re-election.

It’s a radical change from the Mr. Ford who came into office four years ago. He was more of a Dr. No. He built his political brand around a reflexive dislike of government doing much of anything, other than building (free) roads. That was clearly going to be a challenge for a premier whose province, like every province, has complex and expensive social programs in need of intelligent management – think health and education – not to mention a middle-of-the-road electorate that wants government improved, not eviscerated.

His opponents figured that would make him a one-and-done premier, and he helpfully devoted his first year in office to setting the stage for what looked like a certain exit in 2022.

But four years after Mr. Ford’s fluke ascent to power, he cakewalked to re-election. Things changed, and so did he. He’s no longer the leader of a Progressive Conservative Party in name only. His crew sounds and acts like an actual progressive conservative party.

Some right-wingers were radicalized by the pandemic, but it moderated Mr. Ford. He called anti-vaccine protesters “yahoos,” and meant it. He booted caucus members over the issue, and though he lost some of his voting base, he won the respect of a much larger group of middle-of-the-road voters.

As a result, the pandemic became an election non-issue. It was barely mentioned, except by the PCs. “Ontario, we’ve come so far together. We’ve rolled up our sleeves to protect one another,” went the opening of the PCs’ flagship TV ad. Mr. Ford was shown elbow bumping kids, while wearing a mask.

The PCs also found the middle on fiscal policy. Their pre-election budget promised “record investments” in hospitals and mental health, spending on “ensuring Ontario has enough PPE,” subsidies to the electric vehicle industry, and a huge program of building public transit.

At the same time, they also cut gas taxes, refunded vehicle registration fees, removed tolls from two highways, and promised to spend umpteen billions of dollars on a couple of new (and of course toll-free) highways.

In other words, the PCs stood for less taxes and more spending. That’s arithmetically problematic, to say the least, but it’s also where the other parties are at.

The Liberals, for example, promised to maintain the PC trifecta of gas tax cuts, free vehicle licensing and toll removal, and also promised to “put $1,000 per month back in the pockets of middle class families,” through higher spending and lower taxes.

Blame some of this fever on the pandemic. In wartime, you act now and ask questions later; Mr. Ford discovered that nobody was going to punish him for running a deficit many times larger than anything ever seen. Spending and tax cuts were momentarily cost free. So politicians started offering both. Just put it on the tab.

But the emergency is over. And in an era of inflation and rising interest rates, so is free money. It’s back to reality: Ontario can no more tax less and spend more than you can lose weight by simultaneously upping caloric intake and couch time.

Where does that leave the PCs, heading into four more years of majority government? In a similar position to the party that ran the province until 2018.

The Liberals won election and re-election by being, if not quite all things to all people, then at least enough things to enough people, just like the 2022 PCs. As this page repeatedly noted, when analyzing the budgets of former premier Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals pitched themselves as always saying “yes” to calls for more spending on social programs. However, deep in the fiscal projections they consistently – and quietly – budgeted spending increases so small as to be cuts when adjusted for inflation and population growth.

It may be arithmetically impossible to have less taxes and more spending, but it’s politically possible. The only way to reconcile wish and reality is to keep the reality-based accommodations hidden in the footnotes, and out of the marketing materials. That’s how the Liberals managed it. Over the next four years, the PCs – Ontario’s new middle party – may find that’s also the path of least resistance.

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