The prospect Doug Ford could be in charge of Canada’s largest province by July 1 is bad news for the three main federal leaders.
For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it could mean the window of opportunity to execute some of his government’s signature policy missions is inexorably closing.
Without a high degree of provincial buy-in, the rollout of Trudeau’s climate pricing policy risks being anything but smooth.
The main policy takeaway of the abbreviated Ontario leadership campaign was a reversal of the Tories’ carbon-tax-friendly position.
Ford set the stage for that reversal. Among the leadership candidates, he also came across as the least amenable to the federal government’s carbon pricing agenda.
The conflicting political interests of Alberta and British Columbia’s New Democrat governments have already upset the balance Trudeau is seeking to strike between increasing Canada’s pipeline capacity and the mitigation of climate change.
His advocacy of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion could yet throw a wrench in his government’s relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
But so far, the carbon pricing debate had mostly been playing out on a Western Canada battlefield.
A Tory victory in Ontario in June would bring that battle to Central Canada just in time for the federal election.
Indeed, by the fall of 2019, Trudeau’s climate change policy could be challenged by a trifecta made up of conservative government in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Under the Liberal plan, the federal government would impose its own carbon tax in provinces that refuse to adopt their own mechanism to price emissions.
At the time of the National Energy Program, Trudeau’s father successfully drove a wedge between the Tory governments of Ontario and Alberta with the former aligning itself with the federal Liberals.
Based on the keynote speech he delivered, Alberta’s official opposition leader Jason Kenney – should he succeed in becoming premier next year – is not about to let history repeat itself.
And then in the federal budget released just a few weeks ago, Trudeau’s Liberals signalled their intention to make a national pharmacare program part of their re-election platform. But without the co-operation of the provinces – starting with that of Canada’s largest one – the federal plan could be dead on arrival.
For the Trudeau Liberals, the advent of a Ford government at Queen’s Park would make the governance of the federation more challenging. But those complications could come with an electoral silver lining.
Over the past decades, it has been the rule rather than the exception that Ontario voters put their election eggs in different federal and provincial baskets. Pierre Trudeau and Bill Davis; Brian Mulroney, David Peterson and Bob Rae; Jean Chrétien and Mike Harris; Stephen Harper and Dalton McGuinty all had parallel tenures.
For a federal opposition leader, the presence of strong premiers of the same partisan stripe in some of the major provinces has more often than not been a recipe for misery.
Just ask NDP leader Jagmeet Singh as he tries to navigate between the warring NDP governments of Alberta and B.C. over the Trans Mountain expansion.
Even in their current roles as provincial opposition leaders, Ford and Kenney stand to overshadow their mild-mannered federal counterpart Andrew Scheer.
The perception that Scheer, as prime minister, would be at the beck and call of two take-no-prisoners provincial leaders (who by then could have be premiers) would not be an asset as he tries to win back the moderate voters that deserted Stephen Harper in 2015.
With memories of the Harper decade still fresh and with an Ontario/Alberta tandem of the same right-of-centre variety in place, Singh would have a hard sell on his hands trying to convince many progressive voters to take a chance on splitting the non-Conservative vote between his NDP and Trudeau’s Liberals.
Some of the NDP’s strongest scores were achieved in elections that resulted in a federal Conservative majority government.
A word in closing: Quebec will be going to the polls just a few months after Ontario. For the first time in decades, the issue of the province’s political future is not expected to be the subliminal theme of the campaign. It is not a coincidence that for the first time in just about as many decades, none of the Quebec leaders on the ballot next fall will be in contention for becoming the most polarizing premier on the federal-provincial scene.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.