Doug Ford may be good or bad. But is he learning?

OPINION: We can argue about whether the premier is leading the province well through the COVID-19 crisis. What’s going to matter two years from now is what he takes from all this
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 03, 2020
Premier Doug Ford’s earlier proposed cuts to local public-health bodies will be impossible to defend when the dust has settled. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Amidst the daily media briefings in the current emergency, there’s also a political debate unfolding that is almost nostalgic in its purity: Is Doug Ford good or bad? 

On the “good” side, we’ve got Toronto Star columnist and regular The Agenda With Steve Paikin guest Martin Regg Cohn, who commended Ford this week for rising to the occasion and eschewing the worst of partisan politics. We could add, too, our own Steve Paikin, who was using similar language two weeks ago

On the “bad” side we’ve got Canadaland’s Jonathan Goldsbie, who reminds us that history didn’t begin the day COVID-19 was confirmed in Ontario and that Ford’s record on things like public health is far from unblemished.

For my own part, I would offer that the following three things can all be true: Ontario was not particularly well-prepared for a pandemic the day before Ford took office; a number of policies his government implemented in 2019 now look particularly short-sighted and made things worse; he has nevertheless done an able job in the day-to-day communication and administration of this immediate crisis. What I’m interested in is what lessons he’s learning from all this.

To take these in order: for starters, Ontario’s health-care system did not have notable excess capacity before the Tories won the 2018 election. Indeed, part of the reason they won was the growth of “hallway medicine” in the province’s hospitals, as doctors and nurses tried desperately to treat people even as beds filled up. This was a hard problem for the Liberals, and it will be a hard problem for the PC government when we get back to “normal.” But there was no reality in which we would have been particularly ready to face a sudden pandemic — Ford or no Ford.

That said, some of the government’s past decisions were short-sighted and arguably made things worse. The proposed cuts to local public-health bodies, in particular, are going to be impossible to defend when the dust has settled. The fact that Toronto (the city that’s currently the epicentre of the disease in Ontario) was singled out for punishment was foolhardy. Yes, those cuts were mostly — although not entirely — walked back, but that’s only reduced, not eliminated, the strain local public-health bodies have been living with.

It's worth dwelling on that episode for a moment, because it tells us something: the Tories briefly tried to defend the cuts to public health by insinuating that Toronto Public Health was wasting money on activities outside its core mandate. This may mirror complaints in conservative news coverage, but it’s questionable public policy. COVID-19, like previous outbreaks, including SARS, is particularly lethal to people with existing conditions — diabetes and hypertension, for example – so protecting the public from infectious disease should include broader public-health campaigns in “peacetime.” We’re also on alert for the possibility that COVID-19 will spread through Toronto’s homeless-shelter system, so those irritated by Toronto Public Health’s campaign to dispel myths about homelessness now seem especially heartless.

I largely agree with those who argue that Ford has governed competently during the present emergency — his decisions and his communication have, with only a few exceptions, been quite good. The more important question is: What is the government learning from all this?

The province did attempt to learn lessons from SARS, by doing what it often does in answer to these kinds of things: setting up an independent commission of inquiry. Recommendations were made — some were even implemented — but it doesn’t take a commission to start learning lessons, and learning isn’t just for the government alone. We can all take some time to think about these things.

As a certified housing nerd, one thing I’ll be thinking hard about is whether it’s time for the province to end the 50-year-long love affair with condominiums. Condos have effectively been the province’s supply of “rental” units, except that, instead of being run by larger, better-capitalized businesses, they’re held by tens of thousands of small landlords who have no capacity to weather even a short period of financial trouble. This was always a risky trade-off, and it was always going to fail badly in a crisis. It’s possible to return to policies that would encourage purpose-built rental housing instead of condos. Public policy created the condo market as it exists today, and a change in policy could end it.

Potential lessons go beyond housing, of course. One issue that was debated post-SARS and never really resolved was which level of government — municipal or provincial — should be responsible for local public health. Municipalities are protective of their local public-health powers, and not without reason. But they also don’t have the fiscal capacity to pay for them, which leaves it up to Queen’s Park to fund (or not fund) the difference, and decisions made in the premier’s office aren’t exclusively based on epidemiology. In theory, uploading public health to the provincial level could ensure that it’s properly funded as a core part of the Ministry of Health; in practice, there are never any guarantees that the province will actually fund anything in the long-term. One way to square the circle would be to finally give cities real fiscal powers to raise the money they need to do the jobs the province requires them to do.

These questions, and more, will be there waiting for us when the dust settles and the crisis is behind us. If we’re fortunate, our leaders won’t waste the education this experience has provided.

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