Trust, in politics, is the coin of the realm.
If you’ve got it, you’re beyond rich. It can take years to earn it, but you can lose it in a flash.
We’ve recently seen public-opinion surveys indicating that Canada’s and Ontario’s first ministers have managed to garner a great deal of public trust during this pandemic.
As stories go in politics, both Justin Trudeau’s and Doug Ford’s accomplishments have been quite extraordinary. After all, it was only half a year ago that Trudeau won the flimsiest mandate of any prime minister in Canadian history — a minority government with just 33.1 per cent of the total vote. You may remember that his chief competitor, Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer, actually got more votes.
And Ford was also pretty much on life support. He’d experienced the worst first year of any premier in recent (and not-so-recent) memory, was neck deep in rotating teacher strikes, and was hamstrung by silly, self-inflicted mistakes (remember the double-blue licence plates whose numbers you couldn’t see at night time?).
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But then the pandemic hit. And, rather than sink under the pressure of the task at hand, both leaders found their voices and demonstrated some leadership chops — and their popularity began to rise. Trudeau’s personal appeal, according to Campaign Research, went from minus 23 on election day to plus 35. If an election were held today, the federal Liberals would easily win a majority government.
Similarly, on the Ontario political scene, social media has been replete with comments from former Ford skeptics (even haters) who’ve confessed to being deeply impressed with the rookie premier’s handling of the COVID crisis. His rise was even more meteoric: from minus 49 to plus 59.
Ford’s folksy touches have added to his popularity. During his daily media briefings, he’s demonstrated empathy for those suffering through this pandemic, while dropping cute stories, such as the one about knowing a cherry-cheesecake recipe by heart, and confessing that he’s probably eaten too much of it over the years.
But, of late, both leaders have been risking their good fortune and high numbers with questionable performances. Trudeau has developed a habit, during his daily telephoned-in news conferences in front of Rideau Cottage, in Ottawa, of completely ignoring simple, straightforward questions and instead offering meandering, non-responsive answers. Frequently, reporters have had to (politely) remind the PM that his answers haven’t remotely come close to answering their usually direct and simple questions, forcing Trudeau to take a second stab at it in the supplementary. Given that the PM takes only 20 to 25 minutes of questions (after a five- to 10-minute opening statement), that means half the questions reporters would like to ask aren’t getting asked, because they have to repeat their first question so often.
And they’re not gotcha questions. One reporter simply asked Trudeau whether he’d consider bailing out the Toronto Transit Commission, which is staring down a $500 million shortfall by Labour Day. This question is a gimme. The answer is simple. It goes something like, “Public transit is a provincial responsibility, but I appreciate the fact that they may need our help on this, so I’ll talk to Premier Ford about it as soon as possible.” That takes about 10 seconds to say.
Instead, Trudeau meandered all over the place for what seemed like an eternity and killed the clock, forcing the reporter to ask the same darned question again in pretty much exactly the same way. Then Trudeau essentially gave the answer I just wrote above, but still took another minute to say it. Are his aides coaching him to burn as much time as possible with his answers? I hope not. Why would any politician intentionally want to look and sound evasive when the answers in some cases are so simple?
Ford established some significant credibility with the public almost from the get-go, when he scooped the PM by declaring he would release the potentially horrifying modelling numbers, which forecast thousands upon thousands of deaths if Ontarians didn’t get with the physical-distancing program. The premier was adamant: as soon as he knew the gory details, he’d share them, in the interests of candour and transparency. And he did. And he won major plaudits for doing so (particularly since Trudeau was refusing to do so, which made the PM look as if he had something to hide). It got people’s attention and encouraged everyone to buy into the protocols that were essential to flattening the curve.
But three things have happened since then that may be chipping away at the bridge of trust Ford has built with Ontarians. For weeks, he’d been telling us not to go to the cottage, that health-care facilities in rural Ontario in the north (and Quebec in the east) couldn’t handle a potential onslaught of COVID cases. Moreover, because of supply-chain disruptions, the shelves of grocery stores weren’t full. No one wanted to see a run on stuff.
And then Ford fessed up that he’d gone to his own cottage. Yes, only for a few hours and only to check the plumbing, and, no, he didn’t stop for groceries. But, still.
The premier followed that up with another confession: he’d had all four of his daughters over to his home for Mother’s Day. Nice, right? Except that two of those daughters don’t live with him. Wasn’t that against the advice of public-health professionals? Yes, it was. Suddenly, we started seeing a ton of references on social media to a “do what I say, not what I do” premier.
But the premier’s most questionable moment came earlier this week, when the official opposition and journalists asked a simple and direct question: Given that most of the COVID deaths have come in the long-term-care sector, would the government please call an independent, full-scale public inquiry to get to the bottom of why the system has failed so badly?
For the first time since the pandemic hit, Ford blatantly obfuscated in his response. He promised an investigation. He promised change. But he pointedly declined to commit to an independent public inquiry. That’s his prerogative. But he consistently refused to explain why. And the awkwardness of his tap dancing was noticeable for all to see.
It became painful to watch when CBC Queen’s Park reporter Mike Crawley asked the coup de grâce question during one of the premier’s daily briefings. Crawley had done his homework: one Indigenous protestor was killed at the Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995; six died from tainted water in Walkerton in 2000; eight seniors died at the hands of a serial-murderer nurse named Elizabeth Wettlaufer between 2007 and 2015; and 44 died during the SARS outbreak in 2003. In all those cases, independent public inquiries were called. Why, when we’re approaching 2,000 deaths in Ontario from COVID-19 are you, premier, resisting calling a public inquiry?
It was a devastating question, and Ford didn’t help himself with an answer that was utterly non-responsive.
In pre-pandemic times, if these two leaders had given these meandering answers to simple, direct questions, reporters could have followed up over and over and over, if necessary. But, because of COVID, the first-ministers’ communications teams control the microphones. Reporters get one question, one follow-up, it’s all over the phone, and the rat-a-tat-tat of persistent questioning, which is often required to get to the truth, is gone.
There’s a reason both Trudeau and Ford have been enjoying such high popularity. The majority of the public has judged their responses to the crisis as appropriate, strong, and heartfelt.
But it doesn’t take much for public opinion to turn. And I’d suggest that these leaders are inviting a flattening of their popularity curves if they continue to obfuscate, rather than doing what the public has richly rewarded them for doing in the past: just answering a straight question with a straight answer.