We’ve never had a premier like Doug Ford before. Here’s why

Ontario’s 26th premier has a fascinating combination of skills — and he phones Ontarians to remind them of it all the time
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 1, 2019
Premier Doug Ford is known for his retail politics, just as his late brother, Rob, the former Toronto mayor, was. (Fred Lum/CP)

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On Wednesday, Doug Ford entered his 10th month as Ontario’s 26th premier. That may not be enough time for the public to be able to render a verdict on his first term in government. But it is enough time to consider what kind of premier Ford is. The answer is clear: if you’re under 75 years old, he’s unlike anything you’ve seen in your lifetime.

The fact is, Ford has a combination of qualities of which some are quite impressive and others deeply concerning — it’s a combination that, in nearly four decades covering Ontario premiers on TV and in print, I have not encountered before. My aim here is not to make value judgments about these qualities but merely to point them out. 

When Dalton McGuinty was premier, from 2003 to 2013, he spent a lot of time burning the midnight oil, poring over briefing books and reports. I know this because one of McGuinty’s neighbours in Toronto used to tell me that he could often see light coming from the premier’s study at times when the rest of us were already asleep. In fact, several premiers, including McGuinty, Kathleen Wynne (2013–18), Bill Davis (1971–85), and Leslie Frost (1951–63), would take pride in the fact that they were on top of almost every issue with which their governments were grappling. Frost was the master of this, given that, during part of his tenure, he was his own minister of finance. It wasn’t uncommon for Ontario’s 16th premier to answer virtually every question posed during Question Period — as good an indication as any that this extraordinary politician knew his stuff.

Ford is not like this. He knows it. The public knows it. His caucus knows it. In fact, after winning the Progressive Conservative leadership, almost 14 months ago, Ford told his caucus that he was no policy wonk and that, if elected, he would let his cabinet ministers run their departments — but that he had what it takes to win.

He was right. The first six months of 2018 were unprecedented in Ontario political history. Patrick Brown was poised to lead the Tories to victory, but he resigned in late January following allegations of sexual misconduct (which he insists are false and over which he is suing CTV News, the outlet that broadcast them). The party was thrust into a lightning-quick leadership convention. Ford, a former Toronto city councillor who wasn’t even in politics at the time, threw his hat into the ring and won. Less than three months later, he led his troops to a majority government.

Ford was street-smart enough to understand that voters were desperate to get rid of the Liberals and didn’t seem terribly concerned about what the Tories had on offer in terms of policy. He made a key decision to focus his messaging less on his leadership and more on the team surrounding him. The tactic helped him to secure a seven-point margin of victory over the New Democrats.

Last June 29, immediately after the Ford government was sworn in, the new premier darted off the stage at Queen’s Park and, despite blistering hot temperatures, waded into the huge crowd. It was a brilliant move. People loved the chance to have their picture taken with him.

Ford is known for his retail politics, just as his late brother, Rob, the former Toronto mayor, was. Like his brother did, Ford gives out his personal cellphone number and dutifully returns calls from ordinary constituents. Interestingly enough, the results of this practice have been mixed. Some citizens are so dazzled that someone as important as the premier would take the time to return their call that they become loyal Ford fans for life. Others are less impressed by the Ford charm offensive. I have spoken to everyday Ontarians who’ve told me that, while they were pleased to get a personal call from the premier, in the end, it didn’t change their views about him. Even more than that, they’ve told me that they’re alarmed by how disconnected from the decision-making processes of his own government Ford appears to be. None of the handful of people I’ve spoken to would go on the record about their experiences.

However, last week, someone else did: Daniel Enright, who published an extraordinary Twitter thread recounting a 10-minute phone call he’d had with Ford on April 27. Enright said he’d texted the premier late at night to express his concern that a friend of his had just been laid off. To his surprise, Ford texted right back and asked if he could phone Enright. The two then had a conversation.

“So it’s midnight and I just got off the phone with Doug Ford,” Enright’s first tweet began. The premier told Enright that he was still at work, despite the lateness of the hour, and that he’d been making calls all night long.

Enright said Ford’s agenda seemed to be to convince him that no existing teachers would lose their jobs, despite the government’s decision to raise the average class size and thereby make a number of teaching positions redundant. The premier added that he was cutting spending responsibly and that the government’s first budget could have been much tougher but wasn’t.

Ford’s relations with the media have been everything from toxic (the Toronto Star) to chummy (the Toronto Sun) over the years, but he seemed to want Enright to understand that he felt like everyone was giving him a hard time these days.

“The Toronto Sun gives him shit for not cutting enough, and the Star for cutting too much,” Enright paraphrased Ford in a tweet.

Then, Enright learned what so many others have told me privately over the past many months: Ford is not a detail man. He loves interacting with the public. He loves making announcements. He loves the theatre and the cut-and-thrust of Question Period. But he is no Leslie Frost. Numerous people have told me (anonymously, of course) that he is blissfully unaware of many of the details of policy decisions made in his name. Ford’s fans don’t care that he’s unable to quote chapter and verse of his government’s policies. Other Ontarians, of course, are alarmed by the premier’s apparent lack of knowledge.

On the day of his conversation with Enright, Ford seemed unaware that his government had announced it was cutting provincial funding for a program that plants 50 million trees per year. Enright mentioned the funding cut, then tweeted, “… here’s where it gets strange ... He had no idea … The Premier of Ontario told me he saw that story about the trees and called his office to find out what that was all about. He said ‘my people told me’ the best stewards of the environment are the Forestry industry, and they already have 60 million trees scheduled for planting … he had no idea it was happening. Or that people were talking about it. It was the same thing when I asked about cuts to legal aid, ‘what I was told was that there were less cases, and more lawyers taking fees.’ I asked where that # came from, he told me ‘it’s what i was told.’”

That last statement — “It’s what I was told” — is consistent with what I hear about the kind of government over which Ford presides. He is very much a big-picture leader. He leaves many of the decisions (and execution of those decisions) to his team, which is led by chief of staff Dean French. Multiple people inside the PC party have told me that the pair’s loyalty to each other is absolute. Perhaps never in our lifetimes has a premier depended so much on his chief of staff to manage the day-to-day affairs of government.

Ford told Enright that, if his friend needed a job, she should send her resume to premier@ontario.ca. Enright tweeted: “Ford inc. picks up votes one at a time. They won’t make sure everyone has a job, or that everyone gets their sidewalk shovelled, they’ll make cuts and handle people who complain one at a time. And it works. They vote Ford ... he fixed a railing, he installed a speed bump.”

Ford has a keen understanding of the new reality in politics. There is no Republican Party in the United States. There is the Donald Trump Party. For the past five years, there has been no Liberal Party of Canada. There has been the Justin Trudeau Party. Similarly, in Ontario, there really isn’t a Progressive Conservative Party anymore. There is the Ford Nation Party. (One PC member of the legislature even complained to me that Ford and French insist that every MPP use the @FordNation handle on Twitter, rather than @OntarioPCParty.) Enright tweeted: “I couldn’t believe how much effort he put into to [distancing] himself from ‘political parties.’ ‘The people vote for me and they voted for Rob. That’s who we work for.’”

Enright concluded: “I have no idea how or who is running this province. I spoke to a man who didn’t seem to have a grasp of the facts, the effects of his cuts, or how hollow his words sound.”

For some Ontarians, this is clearly not problematic. Among the many responses to Enright’s Twitter thread, there was this: “So which do you prefer? 1. A premier that tells you what happened, he didn’t know, his people told him etc... Or 2. A premier that spins a tale and bs’s their way through your questions to make it seem like they know everything?”

Another tweeter offered a third option: “or 3. A premier who knows what his government is doing, does not act arbitrarily and has some concept of the consequences of government decisions.”

Yet another Twitter user said that the Enright thread “reminds me of the time I texted Rob Ford asking him what’s cool to do in Toronto, just to see what happened, and he actually replied.” Another added: “Also, wow, Doug Ford is a pretty decent politician.”

Enright’s experience isn’t unique. One tweeter shared a similar experience: “I spoke with him on the phone for fifteen minutes on Tuesday. I got a lot of the same talking points (e.g., media unfairness, love for teachers).”

David Herle, who’s run many campaigns for Liberal leaders, including former prime minister Paul Martin and former premier Kathleen Wynne, confessed in his podcast, The Herle Burly, that Ford was an exceedingly difficult candidate to campaign against. For Herle and other serious, policy-driven Liberals, Ford’s apparently limited understanding of policy details renders him so unfit to govern that they can’t understand how anyone could take him seriously.

What they don’t understand is that there are plenty of Ontarians who couldn’t care less that their premier doesn’t know how a bill becomes law or understand the intricacies of a $28.5 billion subway-construction program. They care that he seems to know what he’s all about, that he seems to be in their corner, and that he returns their calls.

And that’s what makes Doug Ford’s combination of strengths and weaknesses something that we’ve never seen in any premier before.

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