Creative organising and resistance are urgently needed as a rampant, austerity-bent Tory government carves its way through Ontario, reports John Clarke
Just three months into its mandate, it is becoming clear that the Tory Government of Ontario, under the leadership of right-wing populist multimillionaire, Doug Ford, is going to unleash an agenda of austerity and privatisation that will be unprecedented in its scale and severity.
Fifteen years of stealthy and incremental Liberal attacks on workers and communities have now given over to a regime of crude and reckless brutality. Under the federal system of government in Canada, the provincial level is where most decisions are made on social policy and, while Ontario is but one of ten provinces, the size of its economy and population will make the results of the unfolding struggle here particularly important, across the Country and internationally. A successful and massive intensification of the neoliberal agenda here would be a defeat that would threaten to spread while a successful model of resistance would be a precious resource for others to build upon.
Doug Ford is no sophisticate. He is most definitely a meat and potatoes reactionary with no qualms about fighting dirty. As he begins to deliver his attack on working class people and a war on the poor, he is trying to ensure that potential sources of opposition are rendered ineffective. He has reduced the level of media access while setting up a bogus ‘Ontario News Now’ social media operation that functions as his propaganda arm.
He is changing the parliamentary rules in the Ontario Legislature to reduce the capacity of opposition parties to delay the measures he advances. While there was no mention of any such intention during the provincial election campaign, and with municipal elections looming, he has rammed through the ‘Better Local Government Act’ to cut the size of the Toronto City Council from 47 to 25 seats and to replace elected heads of councils with appointees in several economically vital regional municipalities. The Tory goal is clearly to ensure that local government is as weak and subservient to business interests, the austerity agenda and upscale redevelopment as it possibly can be.
In ensuring this legislation took effect, Ford was prepared to ride roughshod over the Canadian Constitution in a way that has alarmed even a swathe of the Political Establishment.
In 1982, the Constitution was ‘repatriated’ from the UK and the old British North America Act was replaced a homegrown version. This includes a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that offers some significant protections. The City of Toronto challenged Ford in court and his legislation was ruled unconstitutional. To general astonishment, Dirty Doug proceeded to invoke the ‘Notwithstanding Clause’ to override the Charter.
This clause had been put in place to placate provincial governments when the Constitution was being developed but it was envisaged as an absolute last resort and no Ontario Government has ever used it. Ford, however, brazenly declared that he would not be subject to judicial review and that he would use the Notwithstanding Clause as many times as he needed to. Since the Charter is most often resorted to by individuals whose rights have been infringed upon and by ‘equity seeking groups’, the fact that a government, for the first time ever, is ready to simply obliterate such challenges speaks volumes to the nature of the Tory regime and the plans it intends to put into effect.
War on working class people
Ever the populist, Ford has presented his austerity assault as a series of ‘efficiencies’ that will deliver value for money for the hard-pressed taxpayer. He has set up a process of ‘going over the books’ complete with an outside adviser. He has similarly brought in a high paid Tory ‘health adviser’ with extensive experience in closing and privatising hospitals. The Tory Finance Minister has now announced that the provincial deficit is more than double what the previous Government reckoned it to be. “The hole is deep and it will require everyone to make sacrifices without exception,” he theatrically and ominously asserts.
Clearly, a massively intensified assault is being prepared but, during the short time they have been at the helm, the Tories have already begun their regressive work.
They have instituted a hiring freeze in the public sector. They have made clear that a planned increase in the minimum wage and a series of improvements in workers’ rights will be blocked. The social services Minister has announced a hundred day review of the province’s income support systems and signalled that the end result will be a veritable Doug Ford Poor Law, devoted to creating a regime of impoverished degradation that can generate an ever more desperate scramble for the most exploitative jobs. Doubtless the work of their UK counterparts in sharpening the Work Capability Assessment and intensifying benefit sanctions will be of great interest to the Ontario Tories as they conduct their review.
There is not a trace of hyperbole in describing Ford’s emerging plans as class war and the burning question is that of building resistance to the attack.
Resisting the Tory attack
Resistance to the Tories is emerging but it would be hopeless to pretend that all is well.
The Fight for $15 and Fairness forced the hand of the previous Liberal Government and won substantial gains for low wage workers. It is mobilising to challenge the cancellation of another increase in the minimum wage and related reforms. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and other allies in the Raise the Rates Coalition, are preparing for a fight as the Tory plan for right wing ‘welfare reform’ is rolled out. The slashing of the Toronto City Council led to a very significant mobilisation.
Most significantly of all, last week some 38,000 secondary school students walked out across Ontario to challenge regressive and bigoted changes to the sex education curriculum, the cancellation of an Indigenous curriculum and to demand repairs for crumbing school buildings.
As important as these initial expressions of anger are, it is clear that the Tories are immune from moral pressure and prepared to face down very major opposition to their plans. If they are to be stopped the normal rituals of large-scale protest will not be enough.
The question is to build a powerful social movement in the Province that is rooted in the workplaces and local communities and that can chart a course that creates massive economic disruption and profound political crisis for the Tories. In truth, while there is growing anger at the base, those called upon to play a leadership role are dragging their feet. The social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) official opposition is raising its voice in the Legislature but nothing like the possibilities created by the Corbyn leadership in the Labour Party exists. The trade unions have not taken any initiative that remotely corresponds to the needs of the situation.
Clearly, if the kind of movement that is required is to emerge, the foundations have to be laid at the grass roots level. That means union and community activists working to give organised expression to the anger that is already beginning to grow as the Doug Ford ‘Government for the People’ deepens its attacks.
A kind of austerity on steroids has been forged in Ontario. In the next weeks and months, the opportunity to create a model of serious resistance, as opposed to token opposition, will emerge. A huge amount rests on whether that opportunity is exploited or squandered.
John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.