Should the Tories be worried about their political future?

OPINION: Voters are unlikely to forget that the province failed to take meaningful action until the third wave showed up in ICUs
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 09, 2021
Premier Doug Ford speaks at a news conference at Queen’s Park on April 7. (Chris Young/CP)

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For the first time in the pandemic, I find myself wondering about the Progressive Conservative party’s chances at re-election when the time comes next year.

“All we hear is negative, negative, negative,” Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday. “Let’s look at the positive side. We’re hammering out, more than anyone in the country, more vaccines ... Everyone is pitching in. Let’s stick together: We’re at the end of this battle — we just need to stick together and follow the rules.”

I’m not opposed to the premier being a cheerleader for the province — it is, broadly speaking, in the job description. But “positive vibes in a pandemic” is kind of like political power or a sense of fashion: if you need to tell people about it, you don’t actually have it. When we exit the most dangerous part of the pandemic, and it’s obviously the time for real positivity, that’ll be unambiguous: people will let the government know by returning to movie theatres and restaurants with open wallets. In a sense, it’ll be the photo negative of the beginning of the pandemic, when people started working from home and social distancing well before formal orders came from Queen’s Park.

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To give the premier his due, I agree with him that this’ll come sooner than it looks right now, as we go through the worst part of a new wave. But as the words were coming out of the Ford’s mouth, I did find myself wondering what the PC party’s polling is telling them this week, because his plea had a tone he’s used before when the government was taking a political beating, as happened after its 2019 budget (which eventually cost then-finance minister Vic Fedeli his job. No, not the last finance minister — the guy before that).

I don’t want to give my entirely subjective reaction to something as momentary as the premier’s tone of voice a lot of weight. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll point out that, on Friday morning, the Angus Reid Institute released a poll showing that Ford’s approval rating on the pandemic has dropped substantially from where it was as recently as November. Then, 55 per cent of Ontarians said he was doing a good job handling the pandemic; today, that number is just 32 per cent. Notably, 61 per cent of respondents told Angus Reid (in an online poll taken after last week’s “shutdown” announcement but partly before Wednesday’s stay-at-home order) that public-health measures didn’t go far enough.

That’s just one poll; others recently released have shown how durable Ford’s support has been. But if the Tories aren’t worried about their political fortunes this week, they should be. Not because of the “optics” of the last seven days, but because of the substance.

Let’s take stock: on Thursday, the government announced a provincewide “shutdown” that largely mirrored the measures that were already failing to control the spread of COVID-19 in places like Toronto and Peel; on Tuesday, the government rolled out a vaccination plan that (on the upside) reflected substantially increased vaccine volumes arriving from the feds but (on the downside) didn’t move essential workers up in the vaccine priority nearly enough to satisfy increasingly alarmed public-health officers and other doctors working in the province’s hospitals. By Wednesday, both the “shutdown” and the vaccine plan were dead letters, replaced by a more rigorous stay-at-home order and a promise from the premier to push vaccine doses more energetically into the hardest-hit communities in Ontario.

The province’s stated goals by Thursday were substantially better than its stated goals on Tuesday, so in that sense this is a good-news story. But you can’t start a story halfway through, and it’s still not entirely clear why the premier and his cabinet waited so long to implement a stay-at-home order. Any number of benchmarks that could have triggered a new lockdown sailed past us while the government was working to loosen — not tighten — restrictions. Cases began climbing again in early March, about the same time that the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs started climbing above 300 again (there were 552 as of Friday morning’s report).

The government could have acted as if it took to heart the modelling presented by the province’s science table; as early as February, the projections clearly laid out what a third wave would look like in Ontario. But the government did not do what was called for. Asked about the discrepancy between the government’s actions and the real-world results, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones told the CBC on Thursday: “We wanted to make sure the modelling was actually showing up in our hospitals.” This is, to say the least, not how it’s supposed to work. The province’s associate medical officer of health, Barbara Yaffe, said later on Thursday that the province’s health leadership had been taking the modelling seriously all along.

“Certainly, we take the modelling very seriously; we take advice from the science table, from Public Health Ontario and other experts very seriously, and we don’t wait to see the ICU numbers go up,” Yaffe said at Queen’s Park.

At best, we’ve got two public officials making incompatible statements about the same events; at worst, we’ve got the solicitor general making the kind of gaffe originally defined by journalist Michael Kinsley as “when a politician accidentally tells the truth.” If the cabinet’s policy — intentionally or simply by default — actually was to wait until the third wave showed up in the ICUs of the province, that’s not something that people are just going to forget about. If nothing else, the election is going to give the opposition parties plenty of time and money to remind people about it.

The Tories have had a pretty charmed time during a pandemic that largely wiped away Ford’s unpopularity from the months before the first wave. The events of the past week may threaten that public goodwill. We’re not talking about communications blunders but real, substantial failures. The thing about goodwill is that, once it’s squandered, it’s hard to get back.

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