The Ford government ends 2019 with a lesson in the limits of changing the tone

OPINION: After a bruising spring and summer, the Tories tried to end their year on a calmer, respectful tone — and then had their plans ruined by stubborn facts
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 20, 2019
Teachers picket in Guelph earlier this month, demonstrating the limits of a change in tone from the Ford government. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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If we’re honest, the first reaction of most Torontonians watching Premier Doug Ford cancel a light-rail project in Hamilton is very likely, “Hey, at least it’s not us.” Construction continues on Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown project, and even the Finch West LRT line is still nominally proceeding. Light-rail plans in other cities, like Ottawa, Waterloo, and Mississauga are also either operating or in progress. But Ford has an extensive record of opposing light-rail transit, and he found in Hamilton a project that he could kill without incurring prohibitive penalties (financial or political), so its fate was always uncertain under this government.

Formally, the Tories say the Hamilton LRT was halted because of spiraling costs that the previous Liberal government knew about and concealed from the public. This wouldn’t be a hard claim to prove, given the decidedly uneven record the Liberals had on transit planning. So it’s notable that the government isn’t trying to prove it: they say the decision is based on a third-party assessment (that is, not done by Metrolinx or Infrastructure Ontario, the agencies responsible for executing these kinds of things) that they aren’t sharing with the public. So we can’t scrutinize its math, its assumptions, or its conclusions.

It’s an odd ending to a very long year for the Tories. They’ve been on the backfoot for most of the last 12 months, starting in January when the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark announced the province was abandoning a controversial section of Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act. The section in question would have allowed municipalities to bypass numerous environmental protection laws including the Greenbelt Act. Things got worse with the presentation of the spring budget, which included retroactive cuts to municipal transfers that were only announced after the fiscal year had already begun, and specifically targeted Toronto for pain. Once again, the government was eventually forced to back down. Amidst all that was the constellation of patronage scandals the government endured before Ford fired his chief of staff and shuffled his cabinet.

Things were quieter after the cabinet shuffle, in part because of the prolonged witness protection program the Tories (both provincially and federally) put the premier in while Andrew Scheer tried to win the October federal election. Scheer’s loss was, for a few minutes, Ford’s gain as the premier tried to portray himself as the new champion of national unity.

For a brief time, Queen’s Park observers (including this one) were talking about “a change of tone” from the premier’s office: no longer was the government going out to find new fights to start wherever it could. Our own Steve Paikin noted the premier’s good grace when he unveiled the official portrait of his predecessor Kathleen Wynne earlier this month. While the change in tone was real enough, the news of the last few weeks illustrates the limits to what tone can do.

The government has to do real things and make real choices, and despite what political spin doctors tell themselves to justify their invoices, tone can’t hide the real impacts of government decisions. The Hamilton LRT is one example of this: Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney can try to convince Steeltowners that she’s sad about the unfortunate need to find budget savings in Hamilton’s transit plan, but numerous groups and businesses had started to plan their futures around an LRT that isn’t going to be built now. No number of cleverly worded press releases is going to change that.

The government has the same problem on two other big files they’ve been trying to handle at the end of the year: education and autism. There are two very different contexts, and two different antagonists for the government — teachers’ unions and the parents of children with autism. And the nature of each argument is different: the unions are using the legal tools they have to pressure the government, while parents are using more informal but no-less-effective methods.

But in both cases, the government faces the same basic problem. The ministers responsible for these files — Stephen Lecce and Todd Smith, respectively — are decent enough communicators and haven’t been outrageously inflammatory in negotiations, but this is a real disagreement over the facts of public policy: advocates want the government to spend more money, and the Tories really, really don’t want to. Spin and tone aren’t going to change the facts, which suggests we haven’t seen the last case of parents bursting into tears at government announcements, like we did this week.

So 2019 ends with the Tories looking at a bunch of regrets from the past year and few good options in the year ahead. Meanwhile, polls rate Ford as the least popular premier in the country, unloved even by other conservatives, and the party overall is struggling against even the leaderless Liberals. If Progressive Conservative MPPs didn’t love this year, they may not love what 2020 has in store for them.

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