Populism, bigotry and crack: 6 Reasons Rob Ford Now Typifies Canadian Politics

by Phil Homburg

20 June 2014

Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto in 2010. His rise to infamy on the world stage would occur three years later when the website Gawker and the Toronto Star revealed that they had been offered a video of the mayor ‘allegedly’ smoking crack. The mayor’s bad behaviour had been a topic of discussion for years prior to this incident. As a councillor, Ford was notorious for his use of racist and homophobic remarks in the council chamber. In reference to Asian people he stated: “Those Oriental people work like dogs… That’s why they’re successful in life… I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.” He argued against the city’s spending of $1.5 million on AIDS prevention stating: “If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably, that’s bottom line.”

Since becoming mayor, his notoriety snowballed due to showing up drunk at public events and accusations of sexual assault. Ford’s obvious lack of tolerance for minorities and the so-called ‘liberal elite’ has made him a figurehead of a form of Canadian populism that appears to run counter to traditionally attributed Canadian values. His neoliberal politics of austerity and privatisation have also made him figure whose political values represent the shifting consensus of Canadian politics away from social democratic ideals. Plenty of articles examine the phenomenon of Rob Ford as if he’s anomalous. In truth, he has come to represent the current face of Canadian politics.

1. Even social democratic opposition has been smashed to bits.

First, a little bit of recent history. The Liberal Party of Canada was decimated in the 2011 federal election. This marked the first time in history that Canada’s traditional ruling party was unable to form either the government or the official opposition. This election led journalists and pundits to posit the end of the ‘Laurentian Consensus’. In short, the end of the dominance of the traditional Eastern liberal political, academic and media elite that had shaped the landscape of Canadian politics since confederation. The downfall of the Laurentian consensus has led to a re-evaluation of traditional small-l liberal Canadian values, specifically those most closely associated with social democracy.

2. Neoliberalism is touted as the ‘progressive’ voice.

For those, like journalist John Ibbitson, who claim the end of the Laurentian consensus, Canadian politics has moved irrevocably away from traditionally-held social democratic values. This has been accompanied by the movement of wealth and power from East to West. This shift is also the result of a long-term transformation of the Canadian economy away from social democratic ideals such as government intervention and redistribution. For Ibbitson, this is representative not of a shift towards conservative values, but ones that are “pragmatic, cosmopolitan, global, forward-thinking.” Or, reading between the lines, neoliberal.

3. The seeds of the status quo were sown long ago.

The transformation of Canadian economy and its politics towards a more neoliberal model has a long history that encompasses both Conservative and Liberal governments. Economist Jim Stanford claims it began in 1983 at the height of the Liberal and Keynesian Trudeau government, with the shift to a more Anglo-American model of monetary policy. These tendencies became solidified in the implementation of US-Canadian free trade in 1989 and the transition towards a more resource-oriented economy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The movement away from Eastern manufacturing towards a largely foreign-owned resource-based economy based in the West, primarily Alberta, signals a marked shift in both the Canadian economic and political landscape towards a neoliberal model.

4. Ford’s brand of populism seems maverick but has strong ideological foundations.

It is quite easy to see that Ford is everything Ibbitson’s liberal elite is not: he’s perceived as a politically-incorrect populist keeping the taxpayer’s money safe from his ‘tax-and-spend’ colleagues on the city council. Like all populists, Ford capitalises on the divide between the working class suburbs of Toronto and its perceived urban elite. This has been a profitable strategy for both Ford and his Conservative allies. However, while their outward face is populist, Ford and Harper’s politics are grounded in a well-worn form of conservative libertarian ideology drawn from Canada’s own branch of the Chicago School located at the University of Calgary, think tanks such as the Fraser Institute, and the National Post. Beneath Ford’s public buffoonery and perceived iconoclasm lies a member of the neoliberal consensus that is coming to dominate Canadian politics at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Like all who help reinforce populism, Ibbitson misses the fact that beneath the rhetoric lies an ideological foundation as strong as or stronger than the one that propped up the Laurentian consensus.

5. Free-marketeering has at last enveloped every corner of Canadian society.

The fundamental restructuring of the Canadian economy over the last three decades is now appearing the level of everyday life. There is a marked movement away from considerations of public need towards the generalization of free-market ideology. Canada is finally catching up to the US and the UK.

6. There can be no going back.

Rob Ford does not so much represent the ugly face of Canadian politics as its emerging status quo. The Conservative push for the increased privatisation of services such as healthcare and the postal service continue unabated. Despite a growing more vocal opposition towards Harper’s specific policies, a fundamental transformation of Canadian society has already taken place. It seems that perception is slow to catch up to reality. In this, Ibbiston is correct on one point: there is no turning back to the liberal consensus. Canadians have to soberly face the gap between their perceived ideals and a political system that appears hell-bent on undermining them.


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