The biggest political surprise of the COVID-19 crisis? Doug Ford

Don't look now, but Ontario's premier is starting to impress
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 19, 2020
Premier Doug Ford answers questions following a meeting of all party leaders and health experts at Queen's Park on March 11.

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Quick now: Which politician has impressed or surprised you the most with their competence and leadership during the COVID-19 crisis?

It wouldn’t be John Tory. We expect solid, strong leadership out of Toronto’s mayor — even while he’s in self-isolation — in part because he ran one of this country’s most important companies (Rogers), served as opposition leader at Queen’s Park, and has been mayor for more than five years already.

It probably wouldn’t be Justin Trudeau (prime minister for more than four years) or Chrystia Freeland (deputy prime minister), who impressed so many by helping to bring the new free-trade agreement with America and Mexico to a successful conclusion.

No, I think this one’s a slam dunk, actually. The answer is Doug Ford.

Ontario’s premier had perhaps the worst first year on the job of anyone who’s ever had it. His populist bombast. His constant fights with anyone and everyone. His original chief of staff, who became embroiled in a patronage scandal. Those were the lowlights of a supremely bad first year. We also have to remember that, when he became premier in June 2018, he’d had a whopping three months of experience in provincial politics — hardly enough to draw upon when the you-know-what began to hit the fan.

But, ever since the COVID-19 crisis emerged as a daily reality in the lives of Ontario’s more than 14 million citizens, Ford has performed well above and beyond most observers’ expectations.

Unlike some other leaders (yes, you, Donald Trump), Ford has never tried to downplay the significance of the crisis. He’s never said the thing would burn itself out. He’s never told us to relax, that everything was fine. Trump did all of those things and more.

Instead, Ford has taken to the podium every day during the crisis and conveyed deep empathy for the public he serves.

Trump freelanced his way through his initial Oval Office address to the nation, and the result was the second-worst single-day stock-market crash in American history. Even after that — spurred on by his fans on Fox News (one of whom has since been taken off the air for her journalistic irresponsibility) — he played fast and loose with the facts and continued to shake hands with fans at rallies.

Conversely, Ford learned from his one misstep. No doubt in an attempt to calm the choppy waters, Ford urged people to travel, have fun, and get away during March break. He quickly realized that kind of freelancing was unacceptable during a global pandemic, and, ever since, he has been on point with his advice and stewardship of the crisis.

He has also declined to take any partisan potshots at this time. He called himself “a big fan” of Freeland. In his speech in the legislature earlier today, he noted that this was no time to talk about “the blue party, the red party, the orange party, or the green party. It’s about coming together. We’re all Team Ontario and Team Canada.” The premier’s actions have matched his words.

Politically speaking, the COVID-19 crisis has also given the government another opportunity. It’s allowed the Tories to feature their better performers during daily briefings. And Health Minister Christine Elliott, Finance Minister Rod Phillips, and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton have not disappointed. They, too, seem well-prepared to answer reporters’ questions and have conveyed the sense of gravitas the moment requires.

Perhaps equally important, this crisis has given the government the opportunity to sideline many of the ministers whose performances have been too controversial or disappointing. Education Minister Stephen Lecce is known to be a strong performer. But his constant presence in the media over the previous months was a frequent reminder of the government’s precarious and increasingly unpopular position during negotiations with teachers. Lisa Thompson, the minister of government and consumer services, had become one of the province’s most unfortunate embarrassments thanks to her ill-fated attempts to defend Ontario’s new licence plates. Neither has seen the media Klieg lights for a while.

Things have changed so much at Queen’s Park, the premier actually said these words earlier today: “I want to thank the media. You’re playing a massive role in helping us out.” And perhaps the biggest shockeroo: “There are a lot of great articles in the Toronto Star.”

There is no media outlet in the world that has had a more tempestuous relationship with both Doug and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford than the Star. So to hear the premier say those words demonstrates just how much things have changed over the past month.

Once the crisis passes, is there a likelihood that things will go back to “normal”? Of course there is. This is politics, after all. Mindless partisanship on all sides will return. Potshots will be taken. And the relationship with the media will get more hostile.

But, for now, we should all just take a moment to appreciate this moment of unity, when Ontario’s 26th first minister surprised so many by performing so well.

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