The latest cabinet shuffle is big on novelty but hides a lot of continuity

OPINION: A cabinet shuffle this far into the last full fiscal year of a government means that new ministers won’t make a lot of difference — and the most important posts are staying in hands Ford trusts
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 18, 2021
Education Minister Stephen Lecce will be staying put following Premier Doug Ford’s June 18 cabinet shuffle. (Chris Young/CP)

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If it hadn’t been for COVID-19, Doug Ford might have made this exact same cabinet shuffle a year ago. You don’t need a global pandemic as an excuse to refresh a cabinet that looked much as it did in 2019, and you don’t need an impending election either. In some ways, the coming election blunts some of the political value the shuffle might otherwise have delivered to the premier and his party as they eye June 2022.

The logic of who got moved in and out of Ford’s cabinet on Friday, on the other hand, would have made sense months or even a year ago. Ford could not, when he took office in 2018, make a cabinet out of literally any members of his newly elected caucus. The Tories had been out of power for 15 years; the 2014 election had pared back their number at Queen’s Park to the 28 seats that it’s almost impossible for a Conservative to lose, so long as they’re still capable of fogging a mirror. But those were the most experienced members of Ford’s team, so they were heavily (though not exclusively) represented in his first and second cabinets.

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We’re now in a different time altogether. After a handful of defections and expulsions, Ford has 71 MPPs, and after three years, they all know where the bathrooms at Queen’s Park are and have some idea what the job entails. More important, the party needs to put its mind to defending the seats it won in the last election.

Many of the old hands are out: John Yakabuski, Laurie Scott, Jeff Yurek, Ernie Hardeman, and Bill Walker all represent ridings that have barely even glanced at anyone other than a Tory in the past generation. (Yurek is the closest thing to an exception here — he succeeded Liberal Steve Peters in the relatively recent 2011 election, nearly a full decade ago.) And as the party prepares to defend hard-won ridings in the GTA, new faces are in: Parm Gill of Milton; Jane McKenna of Burlington; Nina Tangri of Mississauga Streetsville; and Kaleed Rasheed of Mississauga East–Cooksville, and Stan Cho of the Toronto riding of Willowdale. So is Dave Piccini of Northumberland-Peterborough South (who is either a GTA MPP or a more rural one, depending on which end of his riding you’re looking at) — though Piccini and Gill are the only ones being given a full ministry (environment and citizenship and multiculturalism, respectively). The others are all taking on “associate minister” roles.

Other MPPs who’d held more junior files are gaining prominence: Etobicoke Centre’s Kinga Surma will get the fun of being infrastructure minister and will spend much of the next year announcing new construction projects and broadband-internet expansions. Prabmeet Sarkaria, of Brampton South, becomes one of the more important ministers in government, holding the office of president of the Treasury Board, who’s second only to the finance minister in terms of watching the flow of public money.

Rod Phillips has returned to cabinet, though given his new post as minister of long-term care in a government that hasn’t yet escaped the scandal of deaths in the first and second waves of the pandemic, who knows how grateful he really is. He replaces Merilee Fullerton, who will now handle children and community services, where the hottest issue will remain autism services. Both ministers will be constrained less by their own abilities and more by whether the government is actually willing to spend money to solve problems.

We need to be realistic about how much — or little — any of these changes will actually matter. This year’s budgets for the respective ministries have been set, and the policies any of these ministers pursue are going to change only at the margins, if at all. This is the last full fiscal year this government is going to get before it needs to go back to voters to ask for a new mandate, meaning that much of what these MPPs do in their new jobs will be less about governance and more about setting up their re-election platform.

Meanwhile, as much as the new faces in cabinet are what defines a shuffle (and thus the newsworthiness of the event), what strikes me about this one is that the centres of real power in provincial politics aren’t changing.

The two biggest ministries, by far, are health and education: Christine Elliott and Stephen Lecce are staying put. Peter Bethlenfalvy stays in the Ministry of Finance. The two ministries responsible for law and order — headed by Attorney General Doug Downey and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones – aren’t changing hands. Caroline Mulroney stays in transportation. Steve Clark even keeps his post in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. Between them, these half-dozen people (and the premier himself, of course) represent the core policies and priorities of the Ford government in 2021.

If you’re feeling charitable, you could say this means the government’s commitment to spending restraint, expanding subways and highways, supporting law enforcement, and taking aggressive action on housing are unchanged. The less charitable would undoubtedly counter that these people have been responsible in their ministries for the disaster in Ontario’s hospitals this yearschools that were too risky to reopen this spring, the government’s use of the notwithstanding clause, billions of wasted dollars on white-elephant transit projects, the brief criminalization of playgrounds this spring, and the use of ministerial zoning orders to circumvent the province’s normal planning rules.

The next year will determine which opinion prevails — and exactly how powerful the optics of a cabinet shuffle really are.

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