There is no one at the wheel in Ontario

OPINION: The government has been completely overtaken by events and lost control — not only of the crisis, but of itself
By Matt Gurney - Published on Apr 19, 2021
Premier Doug Ford at a press conference at Queen's Park on April 16. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Where the hell do I even begin?

That’s not really a rhetorical question. The past 72 hours in Ontario have been, with no exaggeration, the most bizarre three days I’ve ever covered — or even witnessed. There are four or five different columns I could write about it, and all would cover some entirely distinct, eye-popping angle. There’s the “dozens of police forces refuse premier’s offer of power to arbitrarily stop and interrogate any citizen without limit” column. There’s an entire column about what the new police powers — even the lesser, revised versions — mean. There’s a border-closure column. There’s a column about the insanity of closing playgrounds. There’s a column about the volcanic eruption of public anger after the new emergency measures were announced on Friday. You could do an entirely separate one just on the astonishing outpouring of on-background-only and off-the-record wailing and horror by Progressive Conservatives themselves, the likes of which I have never seen.

If there is any meta-theme to be pulled from all of this weekend’s complete bonkers insanity, it’s that Premier Doug Ford and his government can no longer even pretend to be in control. The curtain fell sometime between Friday and Saturday afternoons. It’s not that there wasn’t warning. There have been signs of growing panic for weeks, as whatever inexplicable hope this government might’ve somehow clung to that we’d be spared a major third wave have collided bodily with the reality of a hospital system just trying to avoid a catastrophic collapse. But even as the Tories began rapidly firing off either entirely new or often completely contradictory directives — my column of one week ago was about exactly that — they were still at least putting on a brave face. Their actions seemed to betray growing confusion and fear, but the tone remained calm and measured.

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By Saturday afternoon, and continuing into Sunday, even that was gone. The mask has come off entirely. This is a government that has been completely overtaken by events and has lost control — not only of the crisis, but of itself. It is flailing helplessly, and in such dramatic fashion that no one who’s paying even the slightest attention can have any doubt that this is so. It is pathetic and pitiable, and, because of the current danger, it is frightening. As Ontario faces what could well be the darkest weeks in its history, it is abundantly clear that, at present, we have no effective executive leadership at Queen’s Park.

In more normal times, editorial boards and columnists would be calling for the government to resign — to step down in disgrace, purge a bunch of the top officials, starting with the premier, and face the voters. It has been interesting to see how little of that there has been over the past few days. Resignations and electoral thrashing are warranted, but we’re still in the damn crisis itself, and there’s no appetite for a snap vote, even among the premier’s opponents in the legislature. I’m no exception to this. The only thing worse than more of this would be an election right now, on top of it all. There are rumours of a cabinet shuffle and perhaps a proroguing of the legislature both being imminent; there has already been at least one staffing change in the premier’s office. These are signs that at least some people around Ford are able to grasp the enormity of the current disaster and are doing what they can to restore order.

It might work, as much as it can. But the damage has been done.

Over the weekend, even among the most die-hard Tories I know, the mood was simply one of despair. Literally no one had a word to say in defence of any of it, and even the griping about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — some of it entirely accurate and warranted — was muted and pro forma. Everyone knows that, on top of the unprecedented public-health disaster now unfolding — one that the government blithely stumbled into despite weeks of shouted warnings — Ford has also inflicted a truly mind-boggling political disaster on his party.

I make no predictions about the next election; if the last three days have shown anything, it’s that any prediction that extends beyond about 30 minutes into the future is a waste of time. But right now, for the first time, I’ve heard smart, measured people talking privately but openly about whether Ford needs to resign as soon as the immediate moment of crisis has passed and take most of the blame and public anger with him, leaving the party with a fighting chance at the next election. If he won’t, I’ve been told, more than once, well, the caucus still has things it can do.

And, gosh. Even the government’s good-news announcement — the decision to lower the age eligibility to 40 for the AstraZeneca vaccine, of which the province still has an ample reserve — was just sort of half-heartedly tweeted out late on Sunday. This was a big announcement, and it’s a happy one — one of those increasingly rare moments when what is right for the public and what is right for the ruling party are completely in harmony. It’s the right thing to do, and for a government in absolutely desperate need of a win, it was obviously something to make a big splash with. But we got a few tweets. They couldn’t even film a little video down in whatever proverbial — I mean, I hope it’s proverbial — bunker they’re hiding out in? That they appear this sheepish right now tells you a lot about how even the cabinet knows how their weekend has gone.

But enough about that. As tempting as it is to continue — it is really, really tempting — Ford’s political legacy doesn’t matter. We’re still in the actual emergency right now, and whatever your feelings on Ford and the PCs, it is in all of our interest, as Ontarians, for someone — anyone — to get off the deck and grab the wheel. As bad as this weekend was, the coming weeks are going to be worse. The news out of the hospitals is going to keep deteriorating; even if we’ve seen the peak in our case growth, we have weeks of new admissions baked in. Someone needs to be at the helm. Public confidence in its government is plummeting at a moment when we can’t afford that. Getting this under control isn’t just an urgent imperative for the party. It’s necessary if we are to get out of this emergency.

But it won’t be easy. The anger and bitterness are like nothing I’ve seen before. Since the announcement of the new police powers on Friday and the closing of golf courses and playgrounds, since the rewriting of the police powers and the reopening of the playgrounds (but not golf courses!) on Saturday, I’ve been wondering what it was that made all this feel so different. What it was about it all that finally caused Ontarians, the most placid people in the known universe, to finally boil over. Some of the least political people I know were openly talking about civil disobedience; some of the angry suggestions sounded rather more like a riot than anything else. And the police! We should not lose sight for a moment of how exceptional it was to have literally dozens and dozens of police forces publicly, if politely, rebuke the government. That is simply incredible; we haven’t had the time yet to even begin appreciating how astonishing and strange that was.

So I keep trying to come up with an explanation for what the hell just happened, what precisely Ford did wrong. Some of it is just accumulated fatigue and stress, of course. But what was the spark? What set it off? It was, I think, two things.

The first failure was trying to foist draconian new police powers and pointless but painful closures of safe outdoor amenities on a population that knew full well there were other things that the government could at least try to do first. Paid sick days are an oft-discussed option; surging extra vaccines — maybe even all the vaccines — to the hot spots in the GTA is another. There are plenty of workplaces and construction sites that could be closed, and in-person religious events could still be zeroed out entirely. I’m not proposing we do this or seeking to debate the relative merits of any of these options. The point is simply that these things were on “the table” that Ford so often refers to — and were left there, in favour of keeping toddlers off see-saws and giving every cop in Ontario the right to “Papers, please” anyone they damn well pleased.

That’s what Ford reached for? When there were other options available to him? It’s hard to anger an Ontarian. This got it done.

And then there was just the sheer chaos of it all. I said to friends on Sunday that it’s not just that Ford is making bad decisions, decisions that could mean more people will die. He is doing that. But it’s somehow worse than that — he doesn’t even have the courage of his bad decisions. He’s not sticking to a plan, even a wrongheaded one, after having carefully considered the options and reached a sincere if bad decision. He’s making bad decisions badly and chaotically, in full view of the public, and then frantically trying to undo them, also in full view of the public.

When I think back to some of Ford’s worst political moments before the pandemic, many of them involved the premier buckling under public pressure and suddenly reversing an unpopular decision. That used to take weeks, but it was pretty routine and predictable. During the third wave, we’ve seen the government repeatedly change direction in a span of a week — an emergency brake, then a shutdown, then whatever the hell Friday was. Last week, we were seeing big policy reversals in days, or in a day. This weekend, it was down to hours.

There is no charitable interpretation of this. This is panic. This is chaos. This is a flailing, uncoordinated response to an emergency that, even if we failed to avoid it, we certainly knew was coming. The ship is blazing above decks, taking on water below, and there’s no one alive on the bridge.

It is unforgivable. And it’s going to keep getting worse for weeks.

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