Ever since Rob Ford’s older, meaner brother Doug launched his campaign to become the conservative premier of Ontario, he’s been compared to aspiring demagogue Donald Trump. But it’s not just Ford’s angry-gleeful embrace of far-right populism, albeit minus much of the racism. Or the fact that he, too, pulled himself up by his million-dollar bootstraps to become a successful businessman with his dad’s money. Or even that he declared a phony war on the wealthy “elite” that count him among their ranks.
What Ford shares most with Trump is that they’re both confidence men.
Back in March, Ford promised reporters, “we have 71 days left in this election. That’s more than enough time to unveil our platform and we have a solid platform that is fully costed. That’s the difference. Ours will be fully costed, theirs isn’t fully costed.” On Tuesday, a week out from election day with many having already cast their ballots, Ford was still promising “by the end of this campaign, we will have a fully costed platform.”
Then on Wednesday, he finally did release it — ”For The People: A Plan for Ontario” — but forgot to include how he’ll pay for it all. Ford’s spokesperson told CBC that this was the final plan — “costing of each promise included” — but even the Toronto Sun was forced to admit that “while it spells out the cost of individual commitments, the PC plan is not fully costed, meaning there are no projected deficit figures or estimates for overall spending and revenue.” (The Star also reported from two anonymous Conservative sources that “Ford’s platform not only lacks a fiscal plan but also wasn’t formally approved by the party’s policy committee, as is required by the PC constitution.”
If this gambit seems familiar, it is. Trump made a similar promise to “absolutely” release his tax returns. And you may have noticed that despite repeated promises those elusive returns have never seen the light of day. See, Trump convinced enough Americans that he would do what he said but once they gave him what he wanted — their votes — he had no reason to follow through.
All Trump needed to do was dangle the possibility in front of people all too eager to believe that, of course, he has evidence that he pays his fair share of taxes, donates millions to charity and has no business dealings with Russia. He just can’t show you right now. Just like how Doug Ford can save $6 billion in “inefficiencies” without cutting jobs or services, though that was left out of his “final” platform, too, along with any plan to balance the budget. He just can’t show us right now.
The Washington Post called Trump’s ploy “an unprecedented sign of contempt for voters.” This is true, and the same could be said for Ford’s lack of a costed platform. But both are also signs of political con artistry.
The website How Things Work explains it thusly: “Con artists make money through deception. They lie, cheat and fool people into thinking they’ve happened onto a great deal or some easy money when they’re the ones who’ll be making money. If that doesn’t work, they’ll take advantage of our weaknesses — loneliness, insecurity, poor health or simple ignorance. The only thing more important to a con artist than perfecting a con is perfecting a total lack of conscience.”
Just replace “money” with “votes,” and it fits pretty neatly. While campaigning at a retirement home this week, the Toronto Star reported that Ford reeled off his promises like lower gas and hydro prices and tax cuts. But when reporters asked about costs, Ford went into his con-artist routine: “Every single day, we have a press conference, we roll out our plan. Every single day we put a cost beside our plan.”
He hasn’t, but his goal is to introduce doubt in voters’ minds. It’s not working Christine Van Geyn, the Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who should be his natural ally considering the Fords’ longtime “respect for taxpayers” political pitch.
“Costed platforms matter,” she wrote in the Globe & Mail. “And they matter because voters ought to know the price tag attached to the X they mark on their ballot. They deserve to know if their taxes will be going up or down if the services they support will receive funding and if their grandchildren will be shouldering more debt.”
Indeed, we do. Ford also told those retirees that “every dollar they want to spend is coming out of your wallet” while he will “put money back in your wallet.” Except that every dollar he wants to spend will also come out of your wallet because that is literally how government works. There’s a legit argument between parties about how much should be taxed and spent, but somehow pretending the conservatives won’t also be spending your money (not to mention your grandchildren’s money) is part of the con.
Then there’s that buck-a-beer promise. Sounds great — who doesn’t want cheap beer? — but the only way for the government to lower the price of beer is to lower the excise tax. So even though his actual argument is “beer consumers have been forced to pay inflated prices for beer in order to increase the profits of big corporations,” this policy would mean Big Beer pulls in the same profits (or maybe more) while his government gets less revenue and therefore provides fewer services and/or pays off less debt. We’d still be paying, just somewhere other than at the Beer Store.
On Tuesday, the Liberals costed out Ford’s campaign promises for him, claiming to taxpayers they will be on the hook for $40 billion over the next term. This includes losing $2 billion in annual revenue from cancelling cap-and-trade, $1.3 billion a year for his corporate tax cuts (wait, wasn’t he just against “increasing the profits of big corporations?”) and another $1.2 billion from cutting gasoline taxes by ten cents a litre which would once again “save” us money by costing us services and/or debt payments while not touching oil profits. These costs have been reported similarly by CBC and the Globe & Mail. (Ford’s promised 12 percent hydro bill reduction will remove another $800 million from public coffers, but addressing soaring hydro rates crosses party lines with Libs and NDP also promising to reduce bills with our own money.)
An independent economist from Western University crunched Ford’s numbers, according to the Toronto Star, and found a PC government would run a deficit ranging from $5.8 billion to $12.7 billion in 2019-20, compared to the Liberals at $6.6 billion and NDP at $5.5 billion, and that by the end of his four-year mandate Ford would be running the highest deficits of the three parties, despite running on fiscal responsibility.
What Doug Ford is offering here is a specific con — the shell game. On the sidewalk, it’s a sleight-of-hand trick where the con artist moves three shells around and you have to figure out which one is hiding the peanut. In Ontario politics, it’s where Ford convinces you-you’ll be paying less because you may pay less in provincial taxes now even though you’ll really be paying more due to other increased costs, decreased services and a failure to balance the budget and pay down the debt. Ford’s proud promise of no taxes for minimum-wage workers, for example, will actually cost them over a thousand dollars a year because he also wants to freeze their wages.
Like Trump and his tax cut, which was sold as a middle-class boon but was actually a massive transfer of wealth to the rich and an abandonment of the federal debt, Ford is just moving money between one shell to the next, hoping we will lose track of that peanut. We’re being conned, and if Ford wins then we lose — and, yes, that includes the money he’s promising to put back in our pockets.