Let’s go back to the mid-1980s. Brian Mulroney had just won the biggest majority in Canadian history. But the unprecedented victory created outsize expectations for his government. Before long, the prime minister’s popularity began to drop, and Progressive Conservatives became increasingly alarmed.
Compounding Mulroney’s difficulties was his choice for chief of staff. Bernard Roy had been a lifelong friend of the PM’s and was, by all accounts, a good man. But he had little experience in the cauldron of national politics, and many Anglo-Canadian members of the Tory caucus objected to Roy’s Quebec-centric views.
It took a toll. Just two and a half years into the first PC majority government in nearly three decades, the calls for Roy’s head started getting louder.
It was at this time that the prime minister spoke with his good friend and sometime adviser Bill Davis.
“Brian,” the former premier of Ontario told him, “the reality of politics is [that] the people who get you there aren’t necessarily the people who keep you there.”
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Shortly thereafter, Roy resigned as chief of staff. He was replaced not by another Mulroney confidante but by career diplomat Derek Burney, who brought a professional discipline to the prime minister’s office. History now tells us that the move was crucial to the PCs’ re-election a year later, in 1988. It was the first Tory government to win a second consecutive majority since Sir John A. Macdonald’s more than a century earlier.
The analogy may not be perfect — I don’t hear anyone singing the praises of Premier Doug Ford’s just-resigned chief of staff, Dean French — but Davis’s advice is still spot-on.
French may have been the loyal foot soldier Ford needed to win the premiership and keep his enemies at bay. But there has never, in my more than three and a half decades of watching Queen’s Park, been as polarizing a chief of staff as French. His role in Ford’s life was unprecedented — he was involved in everything from sitting at the cabinet table during meetings of the executive council, to dressing down MPPs for their lack of rah-rah spirit during question period, to making decisions in the premier’s name that Ford had apparently been unaware of.
No doubt, French saw Job One as protecting the king. And he was certainly loyal to Ford — but what he didn’t understand about politics is what made Mulroney one of the masters of it. Even when Mulroney’s popularity was the lowest of any prime minister’s in recorded history, his caucus stood with him because Mulroney respected his MPs and believed that listening to their concerns was one of the most important parts of his job. He knew the names and birthdays of their spouses and children. In return for this thoughtfulness, his MPs gave him their loyalty.
“The next chief of staff has to respect the views of the people who take the trouble to go out and get elected — the MPPs,” former PC MPP Peter Shurman told me over the weekend.
One former cabinet minister who’s been watching the unfolding debacle offered the following observation: “In business, as in politics, you hire the yin to your yang to be successful. Dean and Doug bring out the worst in each other.”
John Casselman, a PC party gadfly who’s been seeking French’s resignation for months, e-blasted this to his supporters a few days ago: “Everyone has to know that internal thugs and political incompetents won't be tolerated — ever.” Casselman must’ve been a happier camper when he heard the news of French’s resignation on Friday.
After the previous secretary to the cabinet, Steve Orsini, left his job as head of the civil service, the government appointed Steven Davidson to fill the position on an interim basis. It then cast its net in hopes of finding a permanent replacement. Given how much power French wielded and how loose Ford’s grip appeared to be on the tiller of government, no serious candidate showed any interest. The word was that the conditions for good decision-making just weren’t there. Davidson was officially handed the job last week.
In any event, Ford now seems to understand what Davis helped Mulroney grasp more than three decades ago. French might have helped put Ford in the premier’s office, but an 18-point drop in party support since last June’s election suggests that there are significant problems with the government — problems that even the most dramatic early cabinet shuffle in the province’s history won’t solve. Ford’s own personal popularity is also at a historic low. And, so, after numerous complaints about French, including (according to the Toronto Star) from two cabinet ministers following last week’s shuffle, French is gone. The Star also reports that French’s efforts to have two family friends appointed to plum diplomatic posts for which neither appeared to be particularly qualified infuriated Ford and was the last straw.
It seems to me that the key question, at this point in the government’s mandate, is: Has Ford now experienced a conversion on the road to Damascus? His intention seems to have been to govern aggressively and get much of the unpopular heavy-lifting done in the first year, leaving the party three years to rebuild a bridge of trust between itself and the voters en route to re-election in 2022. The trouble is, voters often make up their minds about governments early — and, sometimes, nothing can shake their view. Bob Rae’s NDP government lasted five years in the early 1990s, but halfway through Rae’s term, there was a pervasive sense that the government stood no chance of re-election. You could say the same thing about Kathleen Wynne’s previous Liberal government. Narratives set in, and no matter how much time is left in the term, even the most brilliant campaign strategists can’t recraft a narrative that says, “You’re done.”
For those who say this premier is too stubborn to read the tea leaves, I’d say: don’t be so certain. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Ford wants to change some of the ways he does business in hopes of persuading voters to give him another chance in three years’ time.
Here’s some of what’s recently transpired:
- Even before French’s departure (the clearest sign yet of the premier’s desire to change the narrative), Ford reportedly forced his former chief of staff to apologize to a female backbencher after French had reduced that MPP to tears in front of colleagues.
- Having earned nothing but brickbats from parents of children with autism, Ford appointed a former Liberal cabinet minister, Marie Bountrogianni, to co-chair an autism advisory panel. That would have been unimaginable even a couple of months ago.
- The premier appointed Earl Provost, former executive director of the Ontario Liberal Party, to be agent-general in Chicago. (Provost also worked for the premier’s late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, at city hall.)
- Ford shocked many when he unexpectedly showed up to march in the York Region Pride parade. The premier, back when he was a Toronto city councillor, made a point of declining invitations to appear in Pride-related events.
- And perhaps the most unusual development: the two senior-most financial hands in the new Ford cabinet were both brought into politics by one of the premier’s nemeses, former PC leader and current Brampton mayor Patrick Brown. Ford just appointed Rod Phillips to be his new finance minister, having replaced Vic Fedeli, who spent less than a year in the cabinet’s top job. Phillips also directed the 2007 Ontario PC leader’s campaign tour. That leader was current Toronto mayor John Tory, with whom Ford routinely spars. And the president of the treasury board of cabinet, Peter Bethlenfalvy, who reviews every dollar that the government spends, is also someone Ford highly respects, despite his past links to Brown.
Over the past several days, Ford has looked both contrite and bewildered. He seems to have thought that his first budget, titled “Protecting What Matters Most,” would be a political winner. Instead, it turned out that the steady drumbeat of “cuts, cuts, cuts” drowned out whatever good news the Tories thought was in the budget.
Ford clearly thought his chief of staff’s judgment was an asset, something that would help him remain popular. That, too, turned out not to be so. And he likely hoped that a massive cabinet shuffle would show his determination to reboot his government. The historic proportions of the shuffle were obscured by what many have referred to as the most senseless, self-defeating partisan appointments they’ve seen in years.
But remember this: Doug Ford is not to be underestimated. A year and a half ago, he wasn’t even in politics. Then he launched what was, in effect, a hostile takeover of the PC party and won the leadership. Three months later, he was Ontario’s 26th premier. It’s been a whirlwind 18 months for the MPP for Etobicoke North, who has proven time and again that, even when you think you’ve got him beat, he can still surprise you with his underrated abilities.
With the legislature having risen until after the federal election in October, Ford has a chance to reset the narrative that surrounds his government, away from the daily din of opposition questions. If his abilities truly are underrated, now would be the time for Ford to demonstrate them — that is, if he wants to put his team in a position to win a second mandate.