As Doug Ford’s government approaches its first anniversary, a look back on the past year

The climb-down on cuts to municipal public-health budgets may signal a change in approach for the Progressive Conservative government
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 30, 2019
Doug Ford outside his office at Queen's Park
Premier Doug Ford this week cancelled retroactive cuts that his government had intended to impose on various municipal services. (Chris Young/CP)

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It was the single-most important piece of advice that Ontario’s 22nd premier gave Ontario’s 26th premier.

“If I had it to do all over again,” Mike Harris told Doug Ford after the Progressive Conservatives won last year’s election, “I’d have gone twice as hard, twice as fast.”

Given the revolution (common sense or otherwise) that Harris ushered in, back in 1995, that’s saying something. And the current premier has clearly taken Harris’s advice to heart. He and his troops presumably know that the public’s appetite for radical change lasts only so long. People get exhausted by perpetual revolution. So, Ford has been getting as much heavy lifting done as possible before his government’s first anniversary comes to pass.

Memories fade quickly in politics, so let’s just remind ourselves of what a whirlwind the past 11 months have been since Ford won a majority government in the June 7, 2018, election.

New governments that are elected as the summer approaches tend to swear in their cabinet ministers and then drop out of sight for a couple of months, until the house returns. It gives the newbies a chance to learn their files without being subjected to the pressures of question period right away.

The Ford government did not follow this traditional approach. The new cabinet was sworn in on June 29 and immediately called the house back into session to deal with what it believed were some urgent issues. The Tories cancelled the Liberals’ pharmacare plan, OHIP+, which made prescription drugs free to those under 25; in doing so, they saved hundreds of millions of dollars. They legislated an end to a strike at York University. They scrapped the province’s cap-and-trade program. They committed to keeping the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station open longer, preserving 7,500 direct and indirect jobs. They cancelled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of green-energy contracts. They cut Toronto city council almost in half, then threatened to use the Constitution’s “notwithstanding clause” to push legislation through after a court deemed the move unconstitutional. (Turned out not to be necessary: a higher court gave the government the ruling it wanted.)

All of that could constitute a fairly busy year for some governments. Ford’s did it all in about a month. One new cabinet minister likened the learning curve and the pace of the agenda to trying to take a sip of water out of a firehose at full blast — it’s doable, but, my goodness, it’s hard to keep up.

The relentlessness of the agenda continued through the summer and winter and into the spring. There was the cannabis-stores rollout; the unveiling of a $28.5 billion plan for Toronto transit upgrades; the reduction of tuition fees for post-secondary students; the (unsuccessful) court case against the federal carbon tax; the announcement of a pollution-reduction plan; and a fall economic statement and spring budget calling for significant cutbacks in public spending and $26 billion in tax relief.

Whether you love or loathe the government’s agenda, you certainly can’t accuse the PCs being timid.  It has been a breathtakingly active first year.

I believe that the government, having taken Harris’s advice, has now reached an important inflection point in its four-year term. The volte-face on retroactively defunding municipal public-health budgets — something that Harris’s esteemed former principal secretary, Deb Hutton, wouldn’t defend — could be the harbinger of calmer times.

Ford clearly wanted to strike hard while his popularity was at its highest, knowing full well that, as governments make decisions, their popularity creeps inexorably downward, as stakeholders become increasingly alienated by each successive decision.

But it was a very different Doug Ford who stood before the microphones outside his office at Queen’s Park earlier this week. He showed contrition for having proposed the public-health cuts, which had proved unpopular. He demonstrated a tranquility that has not been typical for him. (He was also congenial during a one-on-one interview last week with Global News’ Travis Dhanraj.)

And, just today, the Tories appointed an autism advisory panel to be co-chaired by Marie Bountrogianni (Marg Spoelstra of Autism Ontario is the other co-chair). The notion that this government would appoint a former Dalton McGuinty cabinet minister would have seemed laughable a year ago. And yet, here is the premier reaching across the aisle to ask for help from a former Liberal on the file that has bedeviled his government more than any other. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

The more bombastic and aggressive Ford still shows up at question period, and I wouldn’t pretend to suggest that this leopard is changing his spots. But Ford is now keenly and clearly aware that public-opinion polls show his (and his party’s) popularity dropping like a stone. And there is a great debate in the premier’s office right now as to whether he needs to transform his “scorched earth” approach to politics into a more pragmatic and basic governing style.

In an age of 24/7 cable news and unrelenting social media, the clock in politics is much different than it was a generation or two ago. Back in the day, governments got the chance to change an unpopular narrative over time. That is much tougher today. Social media, in particular, constantly bombards users with whatever narrative has been formed, and such narratives have become increasingly difficult to change. If you’re a conservative supporter, your concern ought to be that too much and too constant change is simply unsustainable. The Tory base may appreciate it. But the next 15 per cent of voters — those you need in order to maintain majority support — won’t be along for that ride. I suspect the premier and his advisers are mulling over the notion right now that they’ll need fully three years to reverse those polls, and that the time to lower the temperature starts now.

Of course, the other side of the debate is urging Ford to keep the pedal to the metal and go, go, go. They are countered by more pragmatic forces who acknowledge that most people in the government are exhausted by the pace of change; they believe that an easing-up on the accelerator is warranted.

Let’s see whether the climb-down on the public-health cuts ushers in a kinder, gentler Ford government, or whether this was just a one-off. I’m betting on a second year that’s much more tranquil than the first one was.

But, of course, as viewers constantly remind me, I’m wrong most of the time.

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