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In the Time of COVID, Laissez-Faire Comes to Bear in Ontario

COVID-19Canadian Politics

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been praised for his government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, but his “hands-off-the-market” approach is simply a continuation of neoliberal, small-government ideas. Photo by Richard Lautens.

It is possible that history will be kind to Ontario premier Doug Ford. Supporters and critics alike have thus far heralded him for being even-handed, pulling off a response to the pandemic that has managed to balance health and the economy. At a podium each day, he delivers a provincial update like a concerned dad—applauding the good and chiding the bad.

Throughout the COVID crisis, the premier has tried to warn “greedy landlords” and negligent farm owners into good behaviour, and threatened for-profit long-term care (LTC) homes with “accountability.” On the topic of paid sick days, his government remarked that sick workers should stay home, asking employers to “support that advice.” Businesses are recommended by the government to implement social distancing practices and mask-wearing policies.

Sure, that all sounds fine. But beneath all the talk is a much more sinister refusal by the provincial government to really intervene. And that refusal, of course, is nothing new to neoliberalism—specifically, “laissez-faire” (or, “let do”) governance. While the hands-off-the-market approach goes all the way back to Adam Smith, it enjoyed a worldwide renaissance starting in the 1970s. In Ontario, its history began mostly with the Mike Harris government of the mid-1990s.

Neoliberalism takes root in Ontario

On one hand, Harris’s brutal approach to public finance—characterized by unrelenting austerity and privatization—permanently stunted public services like healthcare and long-term care (from which he now profits). The consequences of those decisions have never been so acutely felt as the pandemic rages on. However, another key element of the Harris era’s neoliberal project was forcing the government to recede from public interference in the market. By deregulating a variety of industries, slashing taxes on businesses, rolling back employment standards, union-busting, and fetishizing the free market, Harris inaugurated a period of private sector freedom (“let do”) which continued well into the 2000s. As Harris said in 1995, and as Ford says now: “Ontario is open for business.”

25 years after Harris, Ontario’s hands-off legacy is both clear as day and has never been more dangerous. Mostly shunning proactive legislation and regulation, the Ford government instead makes appeals to the individual morality of capitalists with a wartime timbre—do your part, treat your workers fairly, and as for you landlords: you should accommodate your tenants during these trying times.

The language of “should” crowds government statements, and the word touches all of the pandemic’s constituent parts: masks, parks, grocery stores, farms, LTC homes, patios, six feet of distance. Talk is important, it should be said: communicating these new and ever-changing norms is a crucial part of the overall project of pandemic public health.

Yet some things require legitimate and far-reaching action, not just encouragement. Governments, after all, have the power to codify suggestions into law. Governments can have elbows and teeth if they want to. And history is kinder to those that do what is necessary, not those who dance around it.

The laissez-faire state, though, is decidedly hands-off. Despite all the grandstanding about “doing what’s right,” the underlying belief shines through: the private sector knows best, and we’ll give them the discretion to figure this one out. It’s not just ineptitude; it’s intentional and ideological.

So it should be no surprise that Loblaw and Metro suspended their discretionary “hero pay” after just two months; that LTC homes (which, in fairness, exist in both public and private forms) remain chronically understaffed and offer employees poor working conditions; that migrant farmworkers continue to work and die in farms rife with outbreak (in fact, the province actually sanctioned this); or that landlords have continued to raise rents, and will soon be able to evict tenants again (it will be even easier this time) in the middle of a pandemic-induced recession.

Discretion and its discontents

In reality, grocery stores, farm owners, and landlords should’ve never had a choice. As it relates to workplaces, it’s a no-brainer that during a pandemic the province should mandate universal paid sick days to keep everyone healthy, while also hiking the minimum wage and making hazard pay permanent. If the province had intervened this way, all workers couled have fallen under equal protections and been afforded equal freedoms and benefits.

Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris embarked on a neoliberal agenda that led to a crisis in the province’s public sector. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In LTC homes, both public and private, action is absolutely crucial as the province stares down a potential second wave of the virus. While working in more than one home is presently banned (and it should be) the province is simply “encouraging” LTC homes to pay their employees what they’ve lost in wages. And there remains a shortfall in staff to respond to the growing needs of LTC home residents.

With respect to housing, evictions and rent hikes ought to be suspended for the duration of the pandemic as finances remain precarious for a large segment of the population, and for the foreseeable future.

Of course, no one imagines the Tories intervening in this manner—it’s just not in line with conservative politics. But the seriousness of the pandemic has made acknowledging private sector malfeasance (which, under normal circumstances, might otherwise be ignored) almost unavoidable. Malfeasance, now, can mean that people will die. Ford himself recognizes the stated issues as troubling, even preventable or in need of a response. So it’s hard to sit back and watch without saying, “Then do something.”

With the ball of discretion largely in the private sector’s court, no one can really be surprised when it serves its own interest first and foremost. The government’s fake dismay when it does serve its own interest calls to mind the Eric Andre meme where he shoots co-host Hannibal Burress and, concerned, proclaims to the camera: “Who killed Hannibal?”

The non-interventionist approach to face covering policies is another area of concern. Masks have repeatedly been tied to success in reducing the spread of the virus, particularly in countries with a mask-wearing culture like China, Japan and Vietnam, to name just a few. Yet the province refused to take leadership on implementing a provincial mask policy for the major jurisdictions, leaving cash-strapped municipalities to implement policies and enforce them themselves. Because of this, the application of regulations appears to differ quite radically from business to business and city to city. How diligently one private business might enforce mask policies might sway you toward them (or away), compared with a different one another town away. Even the difference between your local butcher and the McDonald’s across the street could be night and day.

But no one should have to make these choices in the first place, because these policies coulde have been administered provincially, applied across Ontario’s large municipalities, and actively enforced from the get-go through intergovernmental collaboration (Ford points to provincially-mandated mask and distancing policies as unenforceable, which is blatantly untrue and misleading: not every business needs to be visited for a policy to be effective). Again, there should never have been a choice—or discretion—in the first place.

The success of face covering and physical distancing policies, of course, require buy-in from individuals who visit businesses, too. But provincial leadership on masks would have also fundamentally communicated the importance of these measures to individuals across the province (national mandates have shown considerable success worldwide), all while creating a framework for enforcement within businesses.

With provincial leadership, and money for enforcement, there would be a lot more to lose for employers that didn’t institute these policies, or couldn’t be bothered to follow them. Enforcement of physical distancing measures is already in place, though the continued prevalence of “pandemic patios” is cause for concern.

And as the pandemic persists, the tension between profit and rules may begin to grow more intensely. Take businesses, especially in retail, which face the possibility of lost profits because of reduced customer traffic: think Boxing Day in December. The same can be said about sanitization routines, which cost money and require extra labour. Unless overwhelming consumer demand materializes for a universal application of these practices, it is almost unavoidable that public intervention—through comprehensive regulation and enforcement—will be necessary to keep everyone healthy. The “profit versus regulation” friction will only intensify as we get further away from March and April’s “peak.”

The road ahead

Aside from regulations already in place, the fear of public-shaming, personal conscience, or having to keep employees and patrons healthy enough (all of which relate to profit) are the private sector’s main incentives to take the pandemic seriously. Their incentive is certainly not maximizing public health, as “returning to normal” implicitly accepts death and illness as collateral damage for profit. And it is certainly not fair treatment of workers, like servers and grocery employees, whose responsibilities and risks have multiplied without commensurate pay bumps and protections. These incentives thus prove flimsy, and they will likely wane further as we elbow our way back to “normalcy.”

So, letting the market do its thing is not working. Care, after all, is not in its DNA. Refusing to seriously intervene, the provincial government mostly stands on the sidelines, praying for the best. To take an old policymaking analogy, Ford deploys neither the carrot, nor the stick: only appeals for good behaviour, fatherly disappointment when it doesn’t transpire, and vague threats.

But a bold regulatory and welfare state, one that disrupts neoliberalism’s almost half-century long history of being “hands-off,” is necessary for bringing about an outcome that ensures people are housed, healthy, and treated fairly at work during an unprecedented pandemic, and whatever comes next.

And something will come next. Harris set the tempo of private sector non-interventionism, a legacy that has both survived nearly 30 years and kneecapped our ability to answer the call of the present moment. When the next crisis comes—and as the possibility of a second wave rises, it might be sooner than later—will we look back to this period as one of historical continuity, or one of schism? Did the laissez-faire train drive endlessly on, or did we stop it in its place?

Dan Darrah is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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