Doug Ford is no longer a budget hawk. So what is he now?

OPINION: The premier was able to sell himself to Ontarians as the right guy to fix a budget mess someone else had made. But that’s off the table now
By Matt Gurney - Published on Mar 25, 2021
Premier Doug Ford prepares to speak after touring a mass-vaccination clinic in Cobourg on March 15. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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I like to think that it’s whimsical. A more objective term might be “quirky.” But I have a strange habit: I often wonder how normal moments in our routine lives would look to a time traveller from, say, 100 years ago. Imagine there’s one with me right now, sitting in my living room as I write this. Some things would be recognizable — tables and chairs and even electric lights. Other things would be entirely bizarre: I just made a cup of tea in a Keurig machine, and that would be a strange process for them to watch. The fridge that held my milk I could explain away as an electric icebox. The computer I’m writing this on would, of course, be almost impossible to explain. To them, I’d be staring intently at a glowing rectangle, punching away at a flat typewriter that barely klick-clacks.

As I read the coverage of Ontario’s latest budget, released Wednesday, it occurred to me that we don’t have to assume our time traveller is from 100 years ago. We could assume that the time traveller is me — me from late 2019. And gosh would I have some explaining to do (including why I now have a wild, Civil-War-general-style beard).

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We’ve all probably had some moments like this during the pandemic. You see a headline and blink really hard as the reality of the current moment collides with the habits and expectations drilled into us by decades of living more normal lives. Field hospitals in parking lots, mass burials in New York, hockey games without fans, a closed United States-Canada border, refrigerated trucks for storing bodies as mortuaries become backlogged ... these are all the moments that can make you realize that, even though this feels as if it’s been going on forever, it’s actually very new, very unusual, and very hard to accept at times. No one, for example, would have the slightest idea what the hell you meant if you told a neighbour, as I did just this morning, “Anyway, gotta go. I’m Zooming in five minutes.”

Or, if you really wanted to blow some minds, you could just look at the budget Premier Doug Ford brought down this week.

TVO.org’s John Michael McGrath summarized it brilliantly when he wrote, “The one-sentence summary of Premier Doug Ford’s career in provincial politics to date is pretty simple: he was elected on a promise to balance the provincial budget after years of Liberal spending, and then COVID-19 happened.” That’s exactly it. The entire nature of Ford’s time in office, the entire trajectory of his career, potentially, has been changed by the pandemic.

I have made this point here before, but if you want to fully grasp how much the pandemic turned everything on its head, think back to the big stories in provincial news just before the bottom fell out.

Rotating one-day strikes by teachers were huge news ... then they shut the schools down entirely for the remaining year, and that was mostly hailed as a good thing. One of the contentious issues, you may recall, was whether there should be virtual schooling; teachers were largely opposed — now they wonder whether we’ve rushed too many people back into classrooms! The government used to talk about its gradual plan to add more beds to the long-term-care system, which was a political problem and a logistical challenge for an overworked health-care system, back before it had become the scene of a nightmarish disaster so awful we had to mobilize the military.

The botched rollout of new licence plates was also huge news. The darned things reflected so much light that they were basically unreadable at night, and Ontario had to go back to the old blue-on-whites. And then the dying began and no one cared about that.

There was also something about gas-price stickers being mandated on every pump in the province because the government was angry about the carbon tax being imposed by the federal government. Flash forward to today, and the Supreme Court has ruled that said tax is indeed constitutional, whether the provinces like it or not. That’s a huge political defeat for the Ontario government, and it comes on a day that the story must compete with grim news about a growing third wave in Ontario and possibly in other parts of the country.

You could say that what used to matter doesn’t matter anymore. But it’s probably fairer to say that, before the pandemic, with some very real exceptions notwithstanding, we were mostly concerned with things that didn’t matter much at all.

A lot of the reaction to the new budget focused on the top line numbers — more than $30 billion in deficit spending over the coming year and no real path to balance until the end of this decade. There’s actually a fairly recent precedent for that. After the 2008 financial collapse, then-prime minister Stephen Harper spent huge sums of cash shoring up the economy and buoying public confidence. It was a strange look for him, known fiscal hawk that he was, but it didn’t precisely come to define his time in office, because he had a broader agenda that he could focus on executing even as he wrestled with the deficit. (Well, he had an agenda until he didn’t, but that’s another column.) Ford, in contrast, was elected largely on the basis of being the guy who’d be tough on spending and get Ontario back on a more sustainable fiscal track after years of huge spending by the Liberals. Beyond that and some stuff about beer, what the hell else was Ford looking to do?

The beer stuff is done. If he’s given up on being the budget hawk, and he very clearly has, what’s Ford for?

We are nearer the end of this pandemic than the beginning, by a wide margin, barring any last-minute curveballs (God forbid). But the mopping-up phase will fill the remainder of his time in office and probably the entire next term in office, too, no matter who’s chosen to sit in the chair. Ford was able to sell himself to Ontarians as the right guy to fix a budget mess someone else had made, but that’s off the table now. He’s going to have to run in the next election as the right guy to help Ontario recover from a catastrophe that he oversaw — and that recovery is going to be expensive.

Which brings us back, once more, to time travel. In 2019, after a year in office, Ford’s government was in turmoil. Remember Dean French? Remember the cabinet discontent? Remember Ford’s approval levels bottoming out after barely a year in office? More recent polls have shown that, though he’s taken a big approval hit since the second wave began, he’s still at or around 50 per cent popular approval. That’s way ahead of where he was when the pandemic started — almost 20 points higher. Imagine going back in time to December 2019 and telling the premier, languishing at about 30 per cent approval, that, in 15 months, he’d be back up to around 50 per cent. He’d have been delighted.

Until you told him the cost.

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