The Tories are trying to turn things around. Here’s what could get in the way

OPINION: Doug Ford’s government is changing its approach heading into its second year in power. But a fresh start can’t erase bad memories
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 04, 2019
Doug Ford and Christine Elliott
Doug Ford’s government decided to recess the legislature from June 7 until October 28. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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I don’t know why all the most useful quotable quotes end up having disputed origins. The one I’m leading off with today has typically been attributed to former British prime minister Harold Macmillan. As the (perhaps totally bogus) story goes, Macmillan was once asked by a reporter what was most likely to knock a government off its agenda. He purportedly replied, accurately but not entirely helpfully, “Events, my dear boy. Events.”

I’ll leave it to others to argue whether the quote should be credited to Macmillan or whether it’s just some quip that somehow became associated with him. But whoever said it, British prime minister or not, is a genius. That quote has been very much on my mind as I’ve watched Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government get set for year two of its mandate.

The second year of the mandate properly began several months ago. The only reason we don’t  have much of a sense of it yet is that the government decided to recess the legislature for an unusually long time — from June 7 until October 28. It did not take long for many to note that the break will essentially take the government almost completely out of the public eye for the entirety of the federal-election campaign, which will be triggered at some point in the next week or so. Given the Ford government’s bleak polling numbers, and especially considering the chaos of the final weeks of the last session, the government’s retreat makes sense.

But it isn’t going to last forever. Conservatives both federal and provincial may be hoping that it will last long enough to get them past the coming federal vote, but, well, there are those pesky events to consider.

Steve Paikin’s recent column on TVO.org covered a lot of the ground I’d planned to today: he summarizes the changes that have taken place at Queen’s Park, specifically those related to the premier. His understanding is in sync with my own — after a series of embarrassments for Ford in the spring and early summer, the premier finally accepted that he needed to make major changes if he were to avoid electoral defeat in three years, or even a caucus revolt much sooner than that. Paikin lays out what those changes are: a new, and very different, chief of staff for Ford, a shift in policy priorities, a rebooted relationship with caucus and other stakeholders (including Toronto mayor John Tory), a less adversarial stance with the media, and some candid acknowledgements of the major failures that marked the government’s first year in office.

Only time will tell whether these changes will last — or be enough to turn things around for the Ford government — but all the PCs could do was try. They’re trying.

But a new chief of staff, a cheerier relationship with caucus, and an aversion to picking needless fights won’t help the government avoid the things that are beyond its control.

Take, for instance, the Tuesday announcement that 106 emergency-room personnel in Toronto had signed a letter calling on the Ford government to reverse planned retroactive budget cuts to public-health services. The Tories were forced into an all-too-typical retreat last spring after public backlash became too much for the premier to bear. But the retreat involved backing off only on the retroactive part — the government still plans to alter its funding formula going forward (specifically, by reducing the province’s share).

It’s a defensible policy, or at least one worthy of debate, but it’s also one with a ton of accumulated bad blood and ill will. The newly chipper and cheerful Tories will have to deal with the fallout created by its earlier, far more combative approach. It’s entirely possible that the Ford government’s change of attitude will make the process smoother going forward — one can hope! But it now finds itself facing a mobilized and energetic opposition, one unified largely by the Ford team’s original, ham-fisted approach. Will it be possible to move forward in a more co-operative spirit? Sure. Is it going to be harder thanks to the mistakes made earlier this year? You betcha. A fresh start can’t erase memories.

And then there are the all-new challenges. This week, of course, is the first week back at school for millions of students in Ontario. How long those kids will remain in school is an open question: the province is in negotiations with a series of unions representing teachers and educational staff. I won’t prejudge the outcome of those talks, but, given how testy things have already been — and the Ford government’s stated desire to get provincial spending under control — it would be reasonable to bet that the negotiations could end up being prolonged and ugly. Job action, or even outright strikes, cannot be ruled out.

This would not automatically work to the government’s disadvantage — public opinion isn’t guaranteed to fall on the side of teachers and other staff. But when you consider the government’s success so far when it comes to managing communications around contentious political issues … well, I mean … what more need I say? My money would be on the teachers winning any PR fight.

Other issues — or events, if you prefer — loom for the Ford government. My column isn’t intended to be comprehensive, simply illustrative. It’s obvious to every Queen’s Park watcher that the government is trying very hard to change how it does business. Now it has to hope that events won’t get in the way.

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