Ontario’s social conservatives are a force Ford must reckon with

The crucial thing to understand about Ontario Premier Doug Ford is that he’s a pragmatist, which is a gentle, even complimentary, way to explain his political shape-shifting, inconsistency, and sometimes downright confusing politics and leadership of the past three years.

More an anachronistic 1960s populist than a right-wing ideologue, Ford seems to govern according to polls, instinct, and what the last person told him.

This makes him the exact opposite of the harsh and brittle true believers of the social-conservative movement, who’ve just accused him of being “totally corrupt,” and promised to withdraw all their support in favour of the three — yes, three — new hard-right parties in the province.

This has all been outlined in a blog statement by Jack Fonseca, director of political operations for Campaign Life Coalition: “Doug Ford, who campaigned on numerous social-conservative values such as repealing Kathleen Wynne’s radical sex curriculum, has turned out be an unmitigated disaster for the pro-life/family movement … and the entire province.”

He continued: “The Ford PCs (Progressive Conservatives) have betrayed the voters who put them in power, and must be removed from office in the June 2, 2022, provincial election. Ford’s conservative-in-name-only PC party has governed as a left-wing, pro-abortion, anti-family dictatorship.”

An increasingly excited Fonseca went on to list examples of what he considers the party’s corruption, including: “piling on to publicly lynch the faithful Catholic school trustee Mike Del Grande,” and “keeping abortion procedures and marijuana shops open for business through the first lockdown.”

The social-conservative movement is renowned, of course, for its hyperbole and inflated predictions, but, for all of its bombast and sabre-rattling, it does have some genuine influence. While irrelevant and even damaging in most urban ridings, anti-abortion activists and the Christian right can sway races in certain parts of the province, especially the Bible belt in the Niagara region. Point is, it doesn’t need an enormous following to make a difference in tight races, of which there may be several.

It’s actually taken a surprisingly long time for Campaign Life and their comrades to realize that Ford was simply never a social conservative. He and his friends might be uncomfortable at Pride, totally unversed in the politics of the LGBTQ2 community, and might know little about the new sex-education curriculum, but, at heart, it’s all largely a digression to them.

What matters is business, profit, and re-election. If a promise to reverse sex ed will win a few ridings, so be it. If cozying up to pre-Vatican II Catholics and extreme evangelicals wins leadership of the party, not a problem. In other words, now that Ford is in power and faces a painfully weak opposition, the so-cons are viewed not only as redundant, but potentially harmful.

Which is precisely why there’s a trio, an unholy trinity, of hard-right parties now in play. The New Blue, Ontario First, and Ontario parties have various points of disagreement, but the division is more about personality than policies.

One is led by the distinctly odd MPP Randy Hillier, the second by Jim Karahalios, who’s married to Belinda Karahalios — the MPP for Cambridge who was ejected from the PC caucus for voting against the lockdown Bill 195 — and the third by former MP Derek Sloan.

Eccentricity and extremism is never a good mix. It’s reminiscent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which tiny and irrelevant Jewish nationalist groups keep splitting into separate parties. That was a satire of the hard left, but it’s no surprise it’s now happening to the hard right, too.

Even Campaign Life recognizes that the three-way division is damaging its cause, and has told supporters it will be “endorsing pro-life candidates wherever they exist, in all three of these parties. If a candidate meets our criteria as being pro-life, we’ll green-light them.” But not Doug Ford’s Tories.

Provincial Conservatives might be taking stock of all this. But so, too, will their federal counterparts. Erin O’Toole is constantly looking over his shoulder at potential rivals, and it’s no accident that the darling of the Christian right, Leslyn Lewis, was excluded from the shadow cabinet, even though she came a close third in the party leadership race, and, it was assumed, would be given a senior role in acknowledgement.

O’Toole, like Ford, is no social conservative, but he lacks Ford’s strength and dominance. That’s a problem for him now, and even more so in the coming months.

The pandemic has empowered the hard right, and those who oppose lockdowns and even vaccinations feel abandoned by mainstream conservative parties. Combine that with the traditional anti-abortion and permanently prudish groups, as well as the instability of the past year, and it could lead to more than a few interesting election contests in Ontario.

MORE COREN: Abortion warnings from south of the border

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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