It was just a few weeks ago here on TVO.org that I interviewed John Wright, a pollster with decades of experience. Our conversation covered a lot of ground and focused partly on federal matters. But when I asked Wright what he thought Premier Doug Ford should do to halt a seemingly catastrophic decline in his polling numbers, his answer jumped out.
“The premier needs to go to the cottage while the heat is turned down by his new staff and stay out of sight as much as possible,” Wright told me. “My advice: turn the volume down on everything. Stop being boisterous and all-consuming. It has not worked.”
That was good advice, I thought at the time. But there was a problem. If I may channel Faulkner for a moment: Ford couldn’t go to the cottage and let things simmer down, because the past wasn’t dead, or even the past.
When I spoke with Wright, it was in the immediate aftermath of a brutal week for the Ford government. A major cabinet shuffle had been completely overshadowed by a patronage scandal involving plum government postings for friends and relatives of Dean French, Ford’s former chief of staff. French resigned — or was resigned, perhaps — in late June, but his resignation didn’t quite end the story. More questionable appointments kept coming to light even after French was out of a job, and there were reports of tension over his continued influence at Queen’s Park. You can’t begin to move on from a political fiasco mid-fiasco.
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It’s been just shy of three weeks since I interviewed Wright. Has Ford finally begun to put this behind him?
The answer seems to be a provisional yes.
To be clear, French is not the only problem that the Ford government is facing. It remains besieged on several fronts (funding for childhood autism therapy is an important one). But at least insofar as the French patronage scandal was concerned, new revelations seem to have dried up. Never say never — but even if there are more revelations of cushy jobs going to friends and family of French, the worst seems to be behind Ford. The steady outpouring of bad news seems a thing of the past (with all deference to Faulkner, of course). And, eventually, the public gets desensitized to further incremental updates to an old story anyway.
It helps that all remaining links between Ford and French seem to have been severed. Toronto Star Queen’s Park bureau chief Robert Benzie reported on Tuesday that Ford had cut all remaining ties to French. Not only has the premier said so publicly, but Benzie reports that senior Progressive Conservative officials have told the Star that Ford has also assured his cabinet and caucus colleagues that French has been cut out of the loop entirely.
And there was another bit of good news this week for Ford on the French front. The ex-chief of staff has dropped his lawsuit against Randy Hillier, a former Tory MPP who now sits as an independent, having been booted from the PC caucus.
The context here is complicated — and, given the legal sensitivities, needs to be summarized very carefully. In effect, Hillier, who has a reputation for shooting from the hip, was ejected from caucus, reportedly after having complained to Ford behind closed doors about French’s behaviour (French’s relationship with caucus was, indeed, apparently very rocky). Hillier then made public remarks on social media that French objected to; he apologized for one of them and withdrew it, but French, unsatisfied, commenced legal action.
Again, that’s a careful recapping of some serious allegations. (And, full disclosure: Hillier’s lawyer, Asher Honickman, is one of my oldest friends.) But the details of the allegations and defences aren’t what’s important for Ford. The important thing is that this problem go away — the last thing a government trying to move past a scandal involving a former senior official needs is for that senior official to show up in the news thanks to ongoing litigation.
Of course, scandals have a way of coming back from the dead to haunt the (political) survivors they didn't get the first time. God only knows what additional fodder may be found in French’s time at Queen’s Park. But I do wonder whether this might finally begin to at least contain the damage of French’s departure. It’s been a few days since any more patronage postings have been revealed; Ford has said that, going forward, there will be a new process aimed at preventing further such scandals. French has apparently been cut off. His high-profile lawsuit against a sitting member of the legislature has been abandoned.
We’re probably a lot deeper into July than the PCs would have wanted to go before they were finally able to start moving on from French’s tumultuous exit. But, at long last, it may be time for Ford to go to the cottage for a bit as things start to simmer down.