Things are very different inside Premier Doug Ford’s government these days.
Having had many discussions with numerous players in and around the provincial government over the past couple of weeks, I can report that a new picture is emerging.
Backbench MPPs are no longer being dressed down or humiliated in front of their colleagues. The premier’s office seems less interested in promoting controversial wedge-issue policies designed to stir up its populist base. And the government has reconsidered some of its most unpopular and ill-conceived policy choices from its first year in power. It’s now more likely to consult stakeholders on policy options instead of handing down decisions and expecting them to buy in.
At the risk of oversimplifying, the reason for this transformation seems pretty apparent: Dean French, Ford’s first chief of staff, is long gone, having resigned back in June. I haven’t heard the phrase “ding-dong, the witch is dead” so many times since I last watched The Wizard of Oz, as a 10-year-old.
Yes, governments get elected to four-year terms. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that they can accumulate enough barnacles in just one year to sink the ship — to establish a narrative that becomes impossible to change.
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Given that former Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown was forced to resign, in part, because his own inner circle of advisers turned on him, Ford was determined to have a chief of staff who, first and foremost, was loyal to the leader. French had that in spades. He always claimed to have the premier’s back.
But there were a couple of significant problems with that. First, French’s way of demonstrating his loyalty alienated far too many people, some of whom felt that his was a reign of terror.
French also seemed to love having unnecessary fights with the media. His ordering government staffers to show up at news conferences and drown out reporters’ questions with hooting and hollering as the premier or his ministers exited the stage demonstrated a boorishness that even many Tory supporters found juvenile.
When Ford got booed at a Special Olympics event and at the Toronto Raptors’ championship parade, and then when some of his senior-most colleagues demanded French be fired over a patronage scandal, the premier finally woke up to the fact that his government had a serious problem.
Nothing focuses the attention of a first minister more than a brewing mutiny on the backbenches.
The other problem Ford and French had was their complete lack of experience in provincial politics. The most successful premiers all had time to learn on the job. Dalton McGuinty was an MPP for 13 years before he won three straight elections as leader of the Liberals. Mike Harris was an MPP for 14 years before he won consecutive majority governments. Bill Davis won four straight elections — but he’d been an MPP for 12 years (and in cabinet for nearly a decade) before winning his first. Ford won the PC party leadership despite having no experience in provincial politics, and, three months later, he was premier — and he installed a chief of staff who also had served no time at Queen’s Park.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this government began to realize that it was in desperate need of a reboot after a disastrous first year in office. It started with a cabinet shuffle — the biggest I can recall ever seeing so early in a government’s tenure.
Then, the party followed up with a 180-degree turn on the file they’d most badly botched: services for children with autism. The former minister of children, community and social services, Lisa MacLeod, infamously rejected input from the most knowledgeable people — those who live on the front lines — then made a decision that denied services to many families that had already been receiving them. To make matters worse, she then demanded that those same stakeholders offer written endorsements of her folly.
Stakeholders were understandably outraged. MacLeod may have been in charge of the file, but the move was right out of French’s playbook. The former chief of staff was so wary of ministers becoming captive to their stakeholders that he actually, in many cases, forbade ministers from meeting with them. How ministers were supposed implement good policies when they weren’t permitted to talk to the people those policies would affect is a mystery.
The new minister, Todd Smith, instantly gained credibility by acknowledging that the government had gotten the policy wrong. He demonstrated a determination to fix it and even took meetings with experts for advice. What a novel concept.
After spending some of the first year pursuing policies seemingly designed to get even with political enemies (for example, cutting Toronto city council in half and eliminating regional-chair elections — a move that derailed the political plans of rival and ex-leader Patrick Brown), the Tories are now making announcements that actually appear rooted in policy improvements.
For example, the popular (but not always consistently operated) Blue Box program is getting an overhaul after three and a half decades. The cuts to municipal public-health programs are being somewhat rolled back — not enough to satisfy all critics, but still an important indication that the government has listened. And there’s the just-announced commitment to improving how math is taught, a response to the deteriorating standardized-test results in the public-school system.
Even though they’ve both carried the PC banner, Ford and Toronto mayor John Tory have had an extremely rocky past year. Ford may have gotten the first shot in — cutting city council and even threatening to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to overrule a court decision in the event that the move was found to be illegal.
But the mayor clearly showed his superior influence with the public when he began going door to door with city councillors and laying the blame for cuts to public health squarely with Ford. That campaign worked. Ford’s numbers started dropping, thus the volt face by the premier.
However, with French’s departure, the premier’s office appears to have sheathed its swords. I’m told by a senior official in the mayor’s office that Ford now calls Tory twice a week to check in and see how things are going. The calls are apparently constructive and appreciated.
The mayor describes his post-French relationship with Ford thus:
“While there is still a lot of ground to cover in forging a solid collaborative relationship, there has been a marked improvement in efforts being made to communicate as between the Premier, his ministers, their offices, and the city of Toronto,” Tory recently told me in an email.
Ford took another important step in changing the negative narrative surrounding his government when he replaced French with James Wallace. Jamie, as everyone calls him, comes from the Toronto Sun newspaper chain. As such, he’s a great fit for Ford Nation: his priority is enacting policies “for the little guy.” And, as a former member of the Queen’s Park press gallery, he understands that picking needless fights with the people who communicate your message to the electorate makes no sense. From what I’m hearing, he’s already brought a new spirit of professionalism to the premier’s office.
Treasury board president Peter Bethlenfalvy, who’s been one of the few bright lights in cabinet so far, says that, while he never had a problem with French, “I can understand that others who haven’t had as good a relationship with the premier’s office may have seen a change in tone.”
Fourteen months ago, when Ford was sworn in as Ontario’s 26th premier, a former cabinet minister in Mike Harris’s government told me that the success or failure of the new government would depend on two things:
“First, given the premier’s lack of experience, will Ford surround himself with good people who will give him good advice? And second, if he does, will he take that advice?” the ex-minister said.
Given French’s departure, Ford clearly concluded that he hadn’t followed step one. Now, he has. We’re also about to find out whether he’s capable of step two — taking good advice. As his former campaign staffer Melissa Lantsman once said, “The premier sometimes acts like a bull who brings his own china shop with him.”
Even Ford’s allies say that he’s got less than a year to demonstrate a better grasp of governing and that, if he doesn’t, the narrative of failure will be too baked in to change.