It’s safe to say — 16 months after he won a solid majority government — that Premier Doug Ford really misinterpreted his mandate.
After humiliating the Liberal party, which had ruled the province for 15 straight years, Ford clearly felt entitled to the belief that he’d just led Ontario to a populist promised land.
He railed against (then had fired) the CEO of Hydro One, taunting him with the “Six Million Dollar Man” nickname (a reference to Mayo Schmidt’s salary).
He unilaterally cut Toronto city council in half, promising significant savings to taxpayers, who would no longer have to fork over for a couple of dozen politicians.
He even threatened to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution if any court dared to stand in his way.
He demonized the federal government’s carbon tax and forced gas stations to put (not very sticky) stickers on the pumps to remind people of who should get the blame for gas costing as much as it does.
He seemed not to know (or maybe care?) much about Indigenous-related sensitivities when he promised to develop the Ring of Fire chromite deposit in northwestern Ontario even if doing so meant “I have to hop on a bulldozer myself.”
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Progressive Conservative backbenchers leapt to their feet offering obnoxious standing ovations every time the premier spoke in question period. PC staffers applauded, hooted, and drowned out media questions, enabling the premier and cabinet ministers to quit press conferences in an extremely uncivilized fashion.
Add in a much unloved first budget and now-former chief of staff Dean French’s patronage scandal, and you get a new government that, shockingly enough, managed to become as unpopular in one year as it had taken Ford’s predecessor, Kathleen Wynne, three years to become. As Melissa Lantsman, chief strategist in Ford’s election war room, famously said, “The premier is a bull who brings his own china shop with him.”
But then something happened.
One of former premier Mike Harris’s cabinet ministers told me after Ford’s swearing-in that the true test for the new premier would be whether he had the strength and discipline to set aside his typical bravado and bluster and listen to wiser voices with better advice to offer.
Ford clearly showed none of that ability in his first year on the job. But those who doubted whether this premier was capable of listening to quieter, wiser voices have no doubt been surprised by his recent behaviour. He’s chucked the populist-revolution rhetoric and is now running what is essentially a moderate, pragmatic Tory government.
Yes, you read that right.
And what’s even stranger: he’s given the most important jobs in cabinet to members of the party’s Red Tory faction, many of whom were supporters of the premier’s worst adversary in politics — the current mayor of Brampton, Patrick Brown.
Not only that, he has sidelined some of his more fervent supporters. It’s a completely unexpected, but quite remarkable, transformation.
Ford and Brown became big-time enemies during the PC leadership process early last year. Ford swore that, if he ever became leader, he’d refuse to sign Brown’s nomination papers. Some even allege that Ford cancelled regional-chair elections in several jurisdictions just to spite Brown, who was running to become chair of Peel Region. (Amazingly, Brown pivoted after that political avenue was taken away from him, ran for mayor of Brampton, and defeated the incumbent.)
Just one year into his new government’s life, Ford now has a Red Tory finance minister who was recruited into politics by Brown (that’d be Rod Phillips). The other important figure responsible for containing spending was also a Brown recruit (Treasury Board president Peter Bethlenfalvy). The minister responsible for Ford’s signature $28.5 billion Toronto subway plan was a Brown catch (Caroline Mulroney, the transportation minister). And the minister tasked with handling the autism file (which Ford loyalist Lisa MacLeod so badly botched) is another Red Tory, who once called Ford “erratic and desperate” during the PC leadership campaign (that’s Todd Smith, the minister of children, community and social services). MacLeod, meantime, was demoted in that massive cabinet shuffle.
Who could possibly have imagined that Ford would not only dial back his populist rhetoric, but also come to lean so heavily on a group of ministers well known for their Red Tory roots and their ties to Brown?
Even ministers who are better known for being on the small-c conservative end of the PC political spectrum seem to be getting in touch with their inner moderate selves. Monte McNaughton surprised many when, as labour minister, he marched in the Labour Day parade last month. Prior to that, he had met privately with numerous major union leaders; he has frequently said that he wants to improve the relationship between his office and organized labour. You did not hear that in the first year of Ford’s government — or the last time the Tories were in power, from 1995 to 2003.
And Stephen Lecce, better known as a hard-right Conservative in Stephen Harper’s prime minister’s office, has also been raising eyebrows thanks to the calming tone he’s used with teachers’ and support-staff unions during contract negotiations. Notable by their absence are the typical stock-in-trade ad hominem attacks on “union bosses.” Instead, Lecce has focused on appearing reasonable and offering to work 24/7 to seek those elusive labour agreements (one of which he has already successfully concluded with CUPE).
Clearly, Ford has also taken up the challenge articulated by that former Harris cabinet minister I referenced above. He has come to realize that, while his frat-boy schtick may have energized his base, it also ticked off all but the most fervent members of Ford Nation. And Andrew Scheer, the federal Conservative leader, has just proven that that simply doesn’t constitute a big enough chunk of the electorate to win a majority government.
So kudos to Ontario’s 26th premier for demonstrating an ability not only to grow on the job, but also to grow into the job. Ford sounded darned near statesmanlike after the federal election, releasing a statement congratulating Justin Trudeau on his victory and promising to work with the prime minister to get stuff done. He echoed those sentiments earlier this week during question period on the legislature’s first day back.
Ford was well on his way to becoming a one-term premier — but if he can continue to demonstrate a savvier touch, rising poll numbers will surely follow.
Who knows? The premier might even put the mayor of Brampton back on his Christmas-card list. After all, he really does owe his inner circle to his worst adversary’s ability to attract the best candidates.