Do you remember Premier Doug Ford’s first speech from the throne more than three years ago?
It was summer 2018. Ford had just been elected with a majority government and was sowing his populist oats at every turn. He castigated the former head of Hydro One, calling him the “Six Million Dollar Man,” a reference to the president’s salary. Ford couldn’t wait to fire him, even though doing so cost taxpayers a fortune in severance costs and millions in share value at Hydro One (the Tories denied that — but it did).
Another one of Ford’s first moves was to cancel an educational conference focused on Indigenous issues. And those land acknowledgements that cabinet ministers in the previous Liberal government always started their speeches with? They were gone, too.
Ford was determined to be, as his former campaign war-room director (now MP) Melissa Lantsman said, “a bull who brings his own china shop with him wherever he goes.” It was about governing by disruption and keeping the populist, anti-government faction of the Tory coalition happy.
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As a result, when Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell read the first Ford government speech from the throne, it was during a ceremony unlike any that had been seen before. The lieutenant-governor reads the throne speech as the Queen’s representative in Ontario. She is scrupulously non-partisan, and part of her mission is to bring a grace and dignity to what is, after all, an ancient parliamentary tradition.
But the Fordites cared not a whit about any of that. They frequently interrupted Dowdeswell with hoots and hollers, cheering on planks in the throne speech that they particularly liked. People who actually think decorum is a good thing for maybe one day a year on the political calendar were mortified by the Tory MPPs’ bad behaviour. In fact, even the LG herself paused for what seemed like an eternity, took her eyes off the speech, and silently stared daggers at the unruly pack of PCs before returning to the text. They were so clueless, I’m not sure they even understood that they were being called out by Ontario’s most dignified public servant.
It was all pretty unprecedented.
Compare that with Monday’s speech, again read by Dowdeswell. How did it begin? With a lengthy, meaningful land acknowledgement — not something I’ve heard in any speech of significance from this government over the past three-plus years.
How did the Tory caucus behave? Actually, with considerable dignity (although, admittedly, half of them weren’t there, because COVID-19 meant smaller attendance on all sides of the house). Not once was the LG interrupted by inappropriate cheering or heckling. And when it was all over, the vice-regal theme was played, MPPs stood, and the house was eventually adjourned.
It was all very … normal.
And that is an interesting development for this government. Ford came into office determined to disrupt everything that was “normal” about public life in Ontario. He ran a brazenly anti-elitist, stand-up-for-the-little-guy operation (remember “buck-a-beer”?) and never hesitated to poke the eyes of those who didn’t embrace his populist tone.
But a global pandemic costing nearly 10,000 Ontarians their lives has reminded this government that empty-headed, fact-free, populist speeches — the likes of which we’ve seen from too many Republican politicians in the United States — actually don’t get you anywhere. Taking advice from smart, experienced people who know things may actually be the ticket out of this mess.
No, Ford and his team haven’t gotten every call right, and the number of barnacles clinging to the ship of state will surely test the buoyancy of this PC government at next June’s election.
But Monday’s speech from the throne reminds us: this government has come a long way from its early days of disruption for disruption’s sake. And trying to act “normally” from time to time is actually a good thing in politics.