Let’s not mince words here: the cabinet shuffle introduced by Premier Doug Ford on Thursday — just one year into his first mandate — is more far-reaching than anything I’ve ever seen at such an early stage in a government’s life.
Ford called his previous cabinet the greatest ever assembled in the history of the province. While that was always hyperbole, the fact that the premier has taken a sledgehammer to his dream team confirms that his proclamation just wasn’t true.
Of course, officially, everyone in cabinet serves at the pleasure of the premier, and no job is ever secure. Having said that, it is unusual in the extreme for a first-term premier to shuffle his finance minister out of that most important of posts after just one budget. Ford and his advisers had to understand what kinds of inferences people would make about the premier’s opinion of Vic Fedeli’s job performance — and yet, they did it anyway.
They certainly didn’t humiliate Fedeli, who is now minister of economic development, job creation and trade. And Ford, in his post-shuffle media scrum, defended the move, saying, “There’s no better salesperson on our team than Vic Fedeli.” But you have to think that, having bided his time on the opposition benches for seven years, Fedeli hoped to bring in more than just one budget.
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When shuffles this extensive happen, Queen’s Park watchers inevitably quibble over who “made it” and who didn’t. But cabinet shuffles never seem to affect the public’s overall impression of a government; in fact, I’m convinced that 99 per cent of Ontarians couldn’t name more than three cabinet ministers.
One person they can name, however, is the man at the centre of it all — and that’s Doug Ford, who has seemingly made efforts to rebrand the Progressive Conservative party as, more or less, the Ford Nation party.
But what do you do when the issue isn’t that your government has poorly communicated its policies or that your ministers are inadequately advancing your agenda? Shuffling the cabinet won’t obscure what public-opinion surveys have told us is the Tories’ biggest problem.
That problem is the premier.
Some relevant history here: in the 1995 provincial election, Mike Harris took his party from third-most to most seats in the legislature, making him the first leader to do so in more than seven decades. He ran on a so-called Common Sense Revolution. He championed shrinking the government, balancing the budget, and lowering taxes. Demonstrators vigorously protested his policies, and yet his popularity remained intact. He was calm and steadfast. Of course, he made mistakes — but he kept his coalition of support together. Harris was re-elected four years later with almost the same chunk of the total vote, 45 per cent.
Ford is similarly running on “driving efficiencies,” making government smaller and more responsive, balancing the books, and cutting taxes. And, yet, after just one year, his party’s popularity has nosedived, dropping 18 points from its election-night high last June. In other words, all the swing voters who helped elect him seem to have abandoned him. What’s worse, the premier’s personal popularity is already lower than Kathleen Wynne’s was at its lowest ebb — and she was the most unpopular premier in Canada at one time. According to Mainstreet Research, Ford’s unpopularity rating hit 73.4 per cent in May 2019. Only 19.9 per cent of Ontarians had a favourable opinion of him.
In other words, Ford has already become more disliked than Wynne ever was — and it took him only one year to achieve what took Wynne five.
At public events, the premier is being booed — at the Special Olympics, at the Toronto Raptors’ victory parade. Ford is a premier who prides himself on being close to the voters, on returning phone calls, and on being responsive, so I have no doubt that the boos are like a kick in the gut to him.
It’s not about who’s finance minister. It’s not about who’s education minister. It’s about the premier. And, in fact, he seemed to understand that today.
Citytv’s Cynthia Mulligan asked the question during the media scrum after the swearing-in: “Premier, do you need to change?”
What was fascinating about Ford’s answer was its complete lack of bombast, defensiveness, or aggression. “We’re always looking for constant improvement,” he said. “And that starts with me. I can do a better job, too.”
And Ford wasn’t done there. “Could we have done a couple of things better? Absolutely,” he acknowledged.
Ford did express frustration at having to compete for the hearts and minds of Ontarians with what he called the “multibillion-dollar public-sector unions, who have a sense of entitlement with the taxpayers’ money.”
But his answer gave the first indication I’ve heard that Ford finally understands that he may need to do business differently if he wants to get re-elected in three years. The typical rhetoric about Ontario being “Open for Business” was absent today. Instead, Ford said that “investments in health care and education are our top priority — even more important than job creation.”
That is a very different Doug Ford talking.
PC supporters should be heartened by the premier they saw today. His performance after the swearing-in suggested that he realizes he shouldn’t, as Adrienne Batra, editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun, put it to me, “be a bull who brings his own china shop with him wherever he goes.”
Imagine the next few years: a Doug Ford who still has his eye firmly on the bottom line and still wants to drive efficiencies, but who’s less bombastic, less hostile, and more concerned with re-establishing trust with Ontario’s swing voters than with giving red meat to his Tory base, which will undoubtedly vote for him anyway. Could that Doug Ford get re-elected in three years’ time?
The premier’s quest to get a “yes” on that question began anew today.
For more on the cabinet shuffle, watch The Agenda tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.