#onpoli newsletter: Four months that changed Ontario

Taking stock of how the pandemic has altered provincial politics
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 21, 2020
Premier Doug Ford visits a bakery in Toronto. (Chris Young/CP)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

With MPPs about to head off on summer vacation, podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath reflect on the many ways that the pandemic has altered Ontario politics. 

Extraordinary times

John Michael McGrath: It’s Tuesday, July 21, and unless something dramatic changes in the next little while, MPPs at Queen’s Park are heading into the second-last day of work at the legislature for the summer. It’s been an eventful year, to say the least. Premier Doug Ford and his government have dealt with both the public health and economic fallout of a historic global pandemic and are now trying to shepherd the province back into some sense of economic normalcy. (On that front, another tranche of the province’s regions will be allowed to enter Stage 3 of the reopening phase this week.) The premier is going to stay busy in August — he’s promised a tour of the province to highlight companies that are helping response efforts — but MPPs won’t be back in the legislature until mid-September. I’ve got two questions for you, Steve: Can you think of anything remotely like the past few months at Queen’s Park in your time covering the province? And is there something from Queen’s Park’s response to the pandemic that stands out, that you think you’ll remember years from now?

Steve Paikin: In short, no and yes. We are living in truly extraordinary times. Innumerable books and documentaries are going to be written and made about the past six months, from myriad angles. It's not as if Queen's Park hasn't had to deal with crises in the past. Goodness knows various governments have had to drop their agendas and re-focus on unanticipated developments: the Great Recession in 2008; the September 11 attacks in 2001; the traumatic recession in the 1990s; domestic terrorism in the 1970s, and I could go on. But this crisis has surely been more profound, more widespread, more expensive, and more debilitating than any of them.

From a political point of view, I suspect what will stand out as people look back at this time is the transformation of Doug Ford. He went from a failing, disruption-for-disruption's-sake novice to someone who rose to the occasion, put aside petty squabbles with the JTs in his life (Justin Trudeau and John Tory), and began growing into a job he was initially ill-prepared for. Just look at any poll. The public is impressed with Ford's volte-face. How about you, JMM? What else will we remember about Ontario's response a decade from now?

John Michael: I think we’ll all be talking about the way COVID-19 ran through the province’s long-term-care homes like wildfire for several years to come, if only because it seems likely to spur a number of major policy changes to try to prevent similar tragedies in the future. To your list of previous crises Queen’s Park has faced in the past, I would add the 2003 blackout, which, while it was mercifully brief, seems similar to me in the sense that it led the Liberal government (elected later that year) to make major investments in the province’s electricity system. We could see the same reaction in long-term care now — though last week’s announcement of a revised long-term-care program was more about changing the funding formula and not substantially increasing the amount of money being spent. Yet.

I’ll also co-sign your point about Ford — a survey out last week from Campaign Research suggests the Tories would do quite well, if the election were held today. The next election is currently scheduled for June 2, 2022, unless the government changes the law. But that doesn’t mean the government won’t find other ways to make news in August. Personally, I wouldn’t bet against either a cabinet shuffle or a prorogation before MPPs return in September — giving the premier the chance to reset the agenda for a fall session with a refreshed team and a speech from the throne.

The best-laid plans

Man speaks at podium
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the General Motors Plant in Oshawa in 2012. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Steve: One of the things that makes politics so interesting is watching how governments think they've been elected to do one thing, but then become known for something completely different. Stephen Harper's government prided itself on a prudent, conservative approach to managing the country's economic affairs. And yet, because of the Great Recession, Harper bought two car companies and brought in the biggest deficit ever. Bet he didn't see either of those things coming. You could say the same for Doug Ford. He thought he got elected to clean up the hydro situation and spend less than the previous guys. Instead, his government, through spending and tax breaks, presented a budget with a deficit three times larger than the previous record. And its legacy may be fixing long-term care, which I can assure you wasn't on its to-do list on election night. This politics is a funny business, eh?\

John Michael: It’s why we do this job, isn’t it? Can you imagine how boring it would be if political parties (and the governments they form) never had to think on their feet, or adapt to unexpected events? Would anyone even need political reporters anymore? I’m going to sign off before I go too far down that road.

Just a reminder...

Want to know more? Check out the latest episode of #onpoli for more on Ontario's latest COVID-19 developments.

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