In June 2018, Doug Ford was elected Premier of Ontario, Canada, in a landslide victory that brought a Progressive Conservative (PC) government into power after 15 years of successive Liberal governments in the province.
Ford’s platform combined right-wing populism with neoliberal market fundamentalism, with Ford proclaiming to offer a government “for the people,” while at the same time promising he would make Ontario “open for business.” During the electoral campaign, what Ford’s platform lacked in concrete policy proposals it made up for in right-wing populist sentiment, castigating liberal “elites” as being out of touch with the needs of everyday people and promising to defend “the people” against the threat of “special interests.”
Ford presented his right-wing populism as being in the interests of Ontario’s working class, including the growing number of low-wage, precarious workers. Building appeal amongst working-class voters is a frequent aim among right-wing populists, despite an often simultaneous commitment to neoliberal economic policies that are clearly aligned with capitalist interests.
Given this contradiction, as well as the continued efforts of right-wing populists to seek working class support amongst both precarious workers as well as organized labour, it is instructive to revisit a cornerstone of Ford’s policy program for Ontario’s workers, the Making Ontario Open for Business Act, 2018. Doing so reveals a deeper element of contemporary right-wing populism: while generally framed as a politics of anti-elitism that claims to support the interests of “the people,” in the current context right-wing populism reinforces practices that sustain capitalist power, including and in particular through conditions of crisis.
With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating conditions of precariousness for many and heightening longstanding racialized inequalities in capitalist labour markets, revisiting this recent right-wing populist effort to reform employment rights in the name of “the people” is all the more pressing.
Contemporary Right-Wing Populism
The rise of populism in recent times, in both left- and right-wing variants, has shaped much of contemporary politics. Populist movements and parties have emerged in response to general conditions of insecurity and inequality resulting from decades of neoliberalism.
This populist turn escalated sharply following the 2008 financial crisis. Notable right-wing populist figures in this contemporary context include Donald Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. In Canada, which has a long history of populism, Doug Ford, along with his late brother, Rob Ford, have been key figures in recent years.
Populism constructs a politics of salvation, with populist leaders offering solutions to a crisis or threat to “the people” created by “elites.” While the ideological content of populism may vary considerably, leaving the core frames of reference of “the people” and “elites” open to adaptation across the political spectrum, populism may include elements of conspiricism, nativism, a devotion to charismatic leaders, and scapegoating.
In the current context, right-wing populist discourses have been instrumental in capturing the material insecurities of both working-class and middle-class voters, while at the same time legitimating and sustaining neoliberal politics of austerity. In this way, populism can be considered a political-ideological form of consent-making in the context of economic crisis, producing and reproducing forms of popular consent to practices that sustain capitalist rule.
Right-wing populism often actively embraces and has roots in racism and xenophobia, fueling fear, panic, anger, and hate in relation to a racialized other that is constructed as a threat to “the people.” In contemporary North America, as well as Western and Central Europe, right-wing populism has combined a general anti-elitism with varying degrees of xenophobia, anti-immigration politics, and white nationalism. It does so in forms that are overtly racist, for example through the racist construction of im/migrants and foreign workers as threatening the economic well-being of the domestic working class. It may also sustain racialized divisions in ways that are less explicit, though no less significant, for example by undermining the employment rights of racialized, precarious workforces.
The Populist Moment in Ontario
Right-wing populism in Ontario emerged alongside the general market fundamentalism of austerity politics embraced by many neoliberal governments during the years following the 2008 financial crisis. A key moment in the articulation of neoliberal austerity and right-wing populism came with the election of Doug Ford’s brother, Rob Ford, as Mayor of Toronto in 2010, with Doug serving as City Councillor.
Between 2010-14, the Ford brothers led a series of attacks on Toronto’s unionized municipal workforce through proposals for budget cuts and privatization. These austerity measures were legitimated through a populist discourse that constructed unionized municipal workers as privileged elites (part of a “gravy train”). The populist appeal of such measures was secured during a time of growing economic polarization and precariousness, in Ontario as elsewhere.
In this context, right-wing populists such as Ford have sought to gain working-class support by capitalizing on precarity while pursuing neoliberal policy agendas that undermine working-class interests.
Making Ontario ‘Open for Business’
Doug Ford continued this right-wing populist approach that built upon neoliberal market fundamentalism as he embarked on his campaign for Premier of Ontario in the spring of 2018. Running under the slogan, “For the People,” Ford targeted so-called “liberal elites” throughout his campaign, promising to bring government back to “the people.”
Reflecting an intersection of populism and market fundamentalism, Ford’s platform combined his populist “For the people” pledge with a neoliberal orientation through a commitment to tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners, as well as for corporations and small businesses.
As part of his election platform, Ford pledged to repeal reforms to Ontario’s employment standards legislation introduced by the previous provincial government in 2017. These reforms had included a number of protections for workers in precarious jobs, the most notable being a commitment to increase the provincial minimum wage to $15 per hour, as well as provisions for equal pay for equal work for part-time and temporary workers, and two days of paid sick leave.
A key promise in Ford’s election platform was to freeze the minimum wage at $14 per hour, stating that the increase to $15 per hour would hurt businesses and eliminate jobs. Tax cuts for low-income workers were proposed as an alternative to a higher minimum wage. With a labour market characterized by high levels of racialized income inequality, Ford’s proposals had significant implications for racialized low-wage workers in the province.
Ford formed a government with an overwhelming majority in June 2018. In the fall of 2018, just months into its mandate, the Ford government turned its attention to its promised employment standards reforms. The government’s intentions were framed through a populist lens that presented Ford as defending the interests of workers in the province against the threats to their jobs created by a $15 per hour minimum wage, as well as other recently enacted protections. A review of records of debates in the provincial legislature in September and October 2018 indicates that Ford’s populist framing was unequivocal, as he characterized the 2017 employment standards legislation as “the worst bill for the front-line hard-working people this province has ever seen.”
This framing provided populist legitimation for the Making Ontario Open for Business Act, which was introduced in October 2018. It froze the provincial minimum wage at $14 per hour and eliminated a number of other reforms designed to provide protections for workers in precarious jobs. The Ford government also suspended its program of proactive workplace inspections in industries where violations of employment rights are frequently identified.
Though undertaken in the name of “the people,” the Ford government’s reforms to Ontario’s employment standards legislation exacerbated conditions of precarious employment and intensified the clampdown for racialized low-wage workers in the province.
Doug Ford’s right-wing populism emerged in relation to the material conditions of precariousness that had escalated in the years following the 2008 financial crisis. It tapped into the insecurities of working-class and middle-class voters generated through years of growing inequality, stagnant wages, declining unionization, and the deterioration of public services and institutions.
Invoking an old neoliberal trope, its solution to the crisis included measures that would make Ontario “open for business,” including employment standards reforms that undermined basic employment protections for workers in the province. While proclaiming intentions to protect “the people” from “the elite,” Ford’s populism served to sustain and enhance capitalist interests by legitimating legislation that undermines the security of an already precarious workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened conditions of precarious employment for many. The recovery from the pandemic must include attention to needed reforms to a wide range of workplace protections. In this context, contesting the efforts of right-wing populists who seek to elicit the support of working-class constituencies while simultaneously undertaking measures that intensify precarity is key to building a better future of work.
Mark P. Thomas is Associate Professor of Sociology at York University in Toronto, Canada.
This article is based on Mark P. Thomas, “‘For the People’? Regulating Employment Standards in an Era of Right-Wing Populism.” Studies in Political Economy 101(2): 135-54 (2020).
Image: Doug Ford speaks to a crowd of supporters in Sudbury (May 3, 2018), Wikimedia Commons