It’s hard to know where to begin with Doug Ford (the allegations of voter fraud within his party? His hand-picked London West candidate, who said in 2015 that “Christianity is the only correct faith”?), so we might as well begin with his attitudes towards women — because they explain a lot about the kind of politics he traffics in.
The Ontario Progressive Conservative leader has twice commented on Premier Kathleen Wynne’s smile. During a televised debate, he turned to her and said, “You’ve got a nice smile on your face.” Less than a week later, he followed it up at another public event, lingering over a handshake to prevent her from turning away and saying, “Still like that smile.”
Once, and this could be written off as a corny line. But twice? A spokesperson for Ford suggested he was just being friendly and signalling his respect of Wynne. That might be convincing but for the fact that no one who’s seen Doug Ford in action would ever describe him as “friendly” or “respectful” toward his political foes — or even his family, for that matter. He frequently humiliated his own late brother, Rob, when he was mayor of Toronto, ridiculing him about his weight and publicly mocking him during a weight-loss contest.
Ford has long had a prickly reaction to women who challenge him. As a Toronto city councillor, he was known to be hostile to female reporters, suggesting one was mentally unstable and referring to another as “a little bitch” — using the most common slurs against women, that they’re crazy and shrewish, to belittle them. When he was running for PC leadership, he brushed off the threat posed by two female opponents by likening them to his wife and daughters — as though their gender was the most relevant aspect of their campaigns. “I live with five women at home,” he said. “I can handle Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott.”
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He’s also welcomed the support of anti-choice Christian conservatives, has said he’d allow members of his caucus to hold free votes on limiting access to abortion and has promised to repeal Ontario’s LGBT-positive sex-ed curriculum.
In the case of Wynne’s smile, his remarks weren’t compliments. Referencing a woman’s appearance and demeanour in a professional context is often a covert tactic to minimize her authority — as Wynne pointed out, it’s unclear what her smile has to do with her policies. This was a sly way for Ford to put Wynne in her place, made all the more infuriating because it trapped Wynne in an impossible position: complain and risk looking like a sourpuss; let it slide and Ford will appear to have gotten one over on the sitting premier. It was a classic, bro-y signal to his supporters that he wasn’t about to defer to his female rivals (he’s also up against NDP leader Andrea Horwath). His message is, as it’s always been: I’m a tough guy who doesn’t buy into political correctness.
Ford’s disrespect for other people, for the rules of political engagement and for accountability itself, extends from there. He says he represents change and is the champion of the little guy, but his fuzzy platform of stopping the gravy train with huge tax cuts doesn’t give him many options except for slashing funding to services like health and education in order to balance the budget (another of his promises). And for someone who says he wants to tackle corruption, his party has demonstrated some questionable ethics. There have been allegations of voter fraud, ballot-box stuffing and fake party memberships during the PC nomination process. One Brampton-area PC candidate recently resigned from his race after his former employer, a company that owns a toll highway, revealed that customer data had been stolen.
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Some 20 PC candidates have skipped out on debates and all-candidates meetings, a much higher number than from other parties. Also missing-in-action is Meredith Cartwright, the Toronto Centre PC candidate, who was revealed to have hired actors to play Ford supporters at a leadership debate earlier this month. (She hasn’t spoken publicly since.)
It’s a dangerous turn in politics. Call it Trumpism or populism, or plain old playing dirty. It breeds distrust and cynicism — and voters who are ready to throw away democratic norms. On at least one occasion crowds of Ford supporters have chanted “lock her up” in reference to Wynne — an echo of the threats levelled at Hillary Clinton during Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. This is what the Ontario election has come to: citizens calling for the arrest of politicians they don’t agree with.
Ford has since denounced the chants: “Let me be very clear: I don’t condone that. Simple as that. I don’t condone it.” He says he intends to take the “high road.” But with two weeks left in the campaign, we’re still waiting for that to happen.