June 8, 2018 / 3:00 PM / 4 months ago

UPDATE 2-Ontario businesses seek clarity from populist leader Ford

(Adds Ford comments from press conference, paragraphs 3, 4)

By Allison Martell

TORONTO, June 8 (Reuters) - Business leaders in the Canadian province of Ontario will closely watch new premier-elect Doug Ford for signs the populist conservative can deliver on his pledge to boost economic growth and lower the cost of operating in the country’s most populous province.

The Progressive Conservative Party that Ford leads won the majority of seats in the province’s legislature in Thursday’s election, data from Elections Ontario showed.

At a press conference on Friday, Ford offered little detail on his priorities, but said his government would hire an auditor to look over the province’s books.

“We will have much more to share with the people of Ontario in the coming days and weeks,” he said, adding later: “The most important thing is getting our fiscal house in order.”

The party is seen as business friendly, but never released a fully budgeted platform. Ford has vowed to scrap a cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and to cut corporate and personal taxes.

Some campaign promises could boost Ontario’s debt load, which at the end of March stood at C$350 billion ($272 billion), one of the world’s largest sub-sovereign debts.

“There’s a clear mandate, and unfortunately there isn’t a clearly defined mandate,” said Rocco Rossi, president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, ahead of the press conference.

“We look forward to working with the government to bring definition to a bunch of items that we hope will lead to ever increasing prosperity.”

The premier-elect has limited political experience.

“There’s a bit of uncertainty in terms of what’s actually going to get implemented and how it’s going to get financed,” said Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at the Royal Bank of Canada. “Once they assume power, hopefully we’ll get some further clarification.”

Ford promised to “end corporate welfare” and add 30,000 new long-term care beds over 10 years in Ontario, Canada’s economic engine and the center of its financial and manufacturing activities. Relatively high power and labor costs have made it difficult for the province to win new investment.

In a research note, BMO Capital Markets senior economist Robert Kavcic said a rough estimate based on campaign promises suggests the province’s budget could be in the C$5 billion to C$6 billion range for fiscal 2020-2021, excluding “efficiencies” Ford promised to find without cutting jobs.

Ford spent most of his career running the family label business, and also served a term on Toronto’s city council. He was a de facto deputy to his late brother, Mayor Rob Ford, who became notorious in 2013 when he admitted to smoking crack cocaine while in office.

The Fords struggled to make changes through a chaotic tenure at city hall, though they were elected with a large cohort of supportive councillors.

Doug Ford was widely criticized for a failed campaign to scrap a long-planned redevelopment on the city’s waterfront, proposing a huge ferris wheel, a new mall and a monorail.

One key question is what role Ford’s more experienced members of parliament will play in his government. Christine Elliott, a relative moderate and former deputy leader who narrowly lost the party’s leadership to Ford earlier this year, won her seat in the Toronto suburbs. (Reporting by Allison Martell, Additional reporting by Matt Scuffham and Susan Taylor in Toronto Editing by David Gregorio)

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