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  • News
  • August 09, 2018

A buck-a-beer: the symbol of Ontario populism

Nathalie Des Rosiers was the President of the Law Commission of Canada, the Dean of Civil Law and Common Law at the University of Ottawa. She was elected as a Liberal MPP in November 2016 in the riding of Ottawa-Vanier. She was re-elected in 2018.

The Toronto Star published this article on Sunday, August 12, 2018. Click here to read the article.

A buck a beer. Fifty cent chocolate bars. A world before sexting, before climate change, before modern complexities appears comforting. If we could go back in time, things would be simpler. This is the message of populist politicians. Trump is about making “America great again”, and Premier Ford is evoking nostalgic images of cheap beer, at a price of 10 years ago. Populist politicians refer to sentimental yearnings of times past to strike a chord with people who are unsure about how to confront our modern intricate problems. Voters are discouraged by complexities and fearful about the future. The past seems like a safer place to be.

It is true that globalization has made our world more difficult to govern. With capital and industry constantly searching for the cheapest place to do business, the ability for governments, let alone subnational governments, to exercise control is more limited. When, in 2010, Joseph Nye came up with the analogy of a chess game in a three-dimensional, three-layered box to explain politics, it resonated to many. It now feels like it is a Rubik Cube that very few are able to solve.

Nevertheless, it is not the first time in history that governance models have had to adapt to massive change. Current governance models present a more indirect and restrained form of governance, away from bans and prohibitions in favour of subtle reminders and incentives to elicit the right type of behavior, from environmental compliance to health promotion. More participation of community actors is involved. Performance is measured and results are achieved over time. We know that the air is cleaner in Toronto since the closing of coal plants, or that child poverty has been somewhat reduced or that more students graduate from high school than 20 years ago.

The problem with this new, and certainly effective, form of governing is that it is less visible and more complicated to explain. It does not inspire people to be as confident as they should about their ability to master the future. But it should. Ontario’s future is just as bright as its past appears to be: Ontario continues to be blessed with a growing agro-food sector, with plenty of natural resources, mines, forests, rivers, lakes. It has an educated workforce, booming high tech and green tech sectors, sports, arts and culture to be proud of, is a leader in financial services, and lots more. It certainly can do more than a buck-a-beer. This populist trend may pass because, although it is attractive to romanticize the past, it does not help address our future needs. The hollow and facile messaging often masks inaction and a lack of vision.

Premier Ford’s summer has been about canceling contracts he did not like, canceling elections he did not like, canceling a curriculum he did not like, canceling programs he did not like, like cap and trade or basic income, so that he could enjoy cheap beer on Labour Day. Maybe after Labour Day, we will know how he plans to tackle important issues of economic development and poverty reduction. In the meantime, we should be wary of references to the idealized golden past of a buck-a-beer.