Business·Analysis

Ontario's NDP must face the cruel economic realities of government: Don Pittis

As Liberals crash in the polls and Ford Nation politics fails to satisfy, suddenly an NDP win in Ontario is no longer far-fetched. But will their economic policies survive?

As polls point to a possible New Democrat win, pie-in-the-sky economics just won't cut it

CBC polls show the Progressive Conservatives are still in the lead, but Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath suddenly has a chance at victory. (Mark Blinch/REUTERS)

Only a few months ago, a New Democratic government in Ontario was being ruled out by everyone but NDP partisans.

But a shift in the polls is showing that the people of Ontario — and the people of Canada — must face a new possibility.

As Liberal party support plunges, Ontario voters are left with a choice between Ford Nation and the NDP.

NDP's plausible prospect

CBC polls show Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives still in the lead.

But suddenly there is a plausible prospect the country's most populous province, the country's centre of finance and home to its biggest industrial base, will once again be governed by Canada's party of the centre left.

Of course one consideration is what that would mean for the provincial and national economy.

The other consideration is how taking power would alter the party's own policy. Experience elsewhere in the country shows when New Democrats go from no-hope to power their outlook changes. And some party supporters may not be happy.

Progressive Conservative party leader Doug Ford has dismissed the NDP as radical and anti-business. But when New Democrats come to government they often become pro-business, sometimes alienating traditional supporters. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

To the provincial conservative leader, there is certainly no hope of changing the policies of "a radical NDP that wants to raise your taxes, raise your hydro rates, raise gas prices, make it unaffordable to live and work."

But, of course, it is Ford who has given the NDP its opportunity. Before he entered the scene, signs that the PC party had moved toward the centre made a Progressive Conservative win a near certainty.

Ford's populism and bombastic rhetoric, with its obvious resemblance to the style of U.S. President Donald Trump, has many Ontario voters — who might not see themselves as natural NDP supporters — considering that alternative.

Strategic choice

The Liberals, the traditional beneficiaries of a polarized electorate in Canada's three-party system, have themselves created a new polarity, slipping so far in the polls that if voting day approaches without a rebound it will make a ballot cast for Kathleen Wynne the equivalent of an abstention.

When the provincial Tories seemed a shoo-in, voting Green or even sticking with the Liberals to show you weren't a quitter may have been a reasonable option. 

But if it looks like Ford and Andrea Horwath are going head to head in the final days of the campaign, many will find it hard not to make a strategic choice.

The slump in support for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne means voters may be forced to make a strategic choice. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

And the chance, no matter how distant, that Horwath and her party could actually win may be already changing the way the NDP is expressing itself. The party's radical fringe — who might want to, say, nationalize the banks, jail corporate leaders or ban Remembrance poppies — is being locked in the attic.

And according to an eye-witness to a previous NDP shift from no-hope to government, that transition makes for an even bigger rethink.

"Being in government has a way of changing not just a party's, but the ministers' and the premier's perspective, because they are no longer just campaigning politicians," says Trevor Tombe, a University of Calgary economics professor who lived through Rachel Notley's unexpected NDP win in Alberta.

Business booster

For example, despite having many anti-pipeline people in the party before taking office, Alberta's NDP leader has revealed herself as a strong and capable pipeline supporter.

Far from being anti-business or anti-resource-sector, as they were portrayed by supporters of the right, the NDP have become careful economic stewards, he says. 

Taxes on the rich rose more than PC leader Jim Prentice was going to raise them and minimum wage went up, but the prediction of radical moves on oil and gas royalties and diversification away from petroleum were unfounded. The party made its crucial decisions by striking panels of unbiased experts including from business.

"They have been moderate, and you could have seen any party doing it," says Tombe.

NDP Premier Rachel Notley after her unexpected win in Alberta. (The Canadian Press)

In British Columbia, while being portrayed by Notley and others as anti-pipeline fanatics beholden to the Greens who hold the balance of power, BC's NDP leader John Horgan has already altered many of his pre-election plans to satisfy business interests.

The Site C hydro electric power plant — which the party campaigned against — is now part of the new government's policy, a move that has outraged many party supporters.

Of course in B.C., as in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where the NDP has often served long periods in government, once in power the party moves closer to the centre as it struggles to deal with same economic forces faced by parties of the centre right. 

Keeping taxes low enough to prevent entrepreneurs from relocating. Promoting the companies that create jobs. Keeping one eye on the rating agencies. Holding enough in the piggy bank for an inevitable downturn. Reining in the expectations of public service unions and public welfare advocates who can always find ways to spend money.

An NDP government will still be subject to the entrenched power of Bay Street and the real estate industry, the automotive industry and the pro-business press. It will still have to work with the Feds, the cities, the other provinces and our unpredictable southern neighbour.

In a desperate bid to outbid their opponents, both Wynne and Ford have made their own unrealistic promises either to spend or cut taxes or both in ways that many economists say are uncosted and potentially unsustainable.

If Horwath and the NDP are to win this election, they will be forced to adjust their policies in the face of the economic realities of government. Any other winner will have to do the same.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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