Doug Ford is pulling a vanishing act — again

OPINION: In summer 2019, the premier, with his office in chaos, went dark. Two years and a pandemic later, he’s making a repeat performance
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 13, 2021
Premier Doug Ford at the Ontario PC convention in Toronto on November 16, 2018. (Chris Young/CP)

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Premier Doug Ford‘s press conference on Thursday went about exactly the way you would have expected. It was perhaps one of the least-surprising press conferences I have ever seen. Much of what was announced was not only predictable but had been predicted.

Ontario will, as widely rumoured, extend the current stay-at-home order until at least June 2. There is no immediate prospect of schools reopening. The premier took time to criticize the federal government’s inaction on the borders, particularly in terms of air travellers arriving from abroad. The ongoing success of the provincial vaccination campaign and the heroic efforts of our front-line medical personnel to treat those afflicted with COVID-19 were both appropriately lauded.

Oh, and no golf. Not until the stay-at-home order lifts. Dumb? Yes. Expected? Also, yes.

Indeed, as I said, it was basically exactly what we’d been expecting. If you are one of those poor tortured souls who continues to follow this stuff on a daily basis, you could probably have scripted the entire press conference on the back of a napkin with 99 per cent accuracy before the premier had even stepped up to the microphone.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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This actually suits me just fine. I was looking to make a different point today, and I briefly worried that the premier might surprise us with some actual news that would derail my little brainstorm. Luckily, we avoided that. Indeed, if anything, the no-news news conference really suits my pre-formed thesis. As much as the pandemic has changed things, those of us who can remember that long-ago era of 2019 will find all of this very familiar.

After the catastrophic failure of his government several weeks ago, when it announced new police powers and the closing of playgrounds — positions it retreated from in disorganized panic less than 24 hours later — Ford has been little seen or heard from. Part of his absence is explained by the fact that he was required, by public-health directive, to self-isolate after having been exposed to the virus by a staffer. But that explains only some of the silence. The premier could certainly have given more online or televised press conferences, such as the one, held in the backyard of his late mother’s house, during which he tearfully apologized for his government’s recent errors. Since then, with the exception of the odd event or appearance in the legislature, he’s has essentially vanished.

This has not gone unnoticed or unremarked upon. The premier’s vanishing act has been discussed openly in news reports; the hashtag #WhereIsDougFord has trended on Twitter. And I don’t think I’m telling any tales out of school when I observe that, among my colleagues across the province’s media, in our group chats and text message chains, we have been asking each other, so, like, yeah… where is Doug?

A report from CTV published this week gives us some of that answer. Fully aware of their brutal polling numbers and recent missteps, the Progressive Conservative party brain trust has apparently decided to pull the premier off the public stage and let other ministers do the front-facing communication. We can question the wisdom of that strategy — indeed, anyone who has seen Merilee Fullerton‘s recent performances, in her capacity as minister of long-term care, is obligated to question that wisdom. But it is at least a rational explanation. Ford is notoriously the opposite of camera shy. When he goes dark, that’s noticeable.

But it’s not the first time it’s happened. It seems like a million years ago, but it was only in June and July 2019 that the premier, with his office in chaos and his chief of staff recently departed under a cloud of scandal, basically vanished. This was part of another strategy to allow the government’s polling numbers to recover after some unforced self-injuries by taking the premier and sending him far, far away. My friend John Wright, a pollster, told me in an interview that the best thing Ford could do for himself and the party was to go to the cottage for a few months and stay the hell out of everyone’s way.

We’re a long way from the summer of 2019. The two years since feel more like 20. But it struck me how strange it is to find ourselves back in the same damn place. Ford has again largely gone dark while his office and various ministers again try to stop the bleeding at the polls for a party that is now on its second electoral deathwatch of the term.

I don’t know exactly what to make of all this. I have no bow to tie around all of this, thus forming a neat little package. Perhaps the old cliché about how the more things change, the more they stay the same is the best that can be said of all this. But after two years, a devastating global catastrophe, and 8,000 dead Ontarians, the premier is repeating the go-dark strategy of 2019.

It’s a shame they’ve closed all the bars. Because believe me, given the above, I could use a drink.

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