With COVID-19 on the way out, Doug Ford needs a winning issue

OPINION: The Tories have taken damage recently — and they need to come up with a voter-pleasing plan. I have a suggestion
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jun 22, 2021
Premier Doug Ford walks into the legislative chamber at Queens Park on June 14. (Chris Young/CP)

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It was just last week that I noted in a column here at TVO.org that we would be moving out of the pandemic soon. Not quite yet. We still have vaccination campaigns to complete, schools to reopen and health-care and long-term-care systems in urgent need of major structural overhaul. We’ll be talking about the pandemic for years. Historians will write many books about this.

But in the daily news business, it’s probably time to start looking at other stuff.

I was off on Friday of last week. I had a major home-repair crisis to deal with, not easy in this time of health restrictions and parts shortages due to still-wonky global supply chains. I basically missed all the news about the provincial cabinet shuffle until I’d come up for air on the weekend. I didn’t really have any particular thoughts on it, beyond being somewhat surprised to see the former long-term-care minister, Merilee Fullerton, coming through as cleanly as she did. She’s now the minister of children, community and social services. The cynic in me wondered whether, having overseen one catastrophe among a group of vulnerable Ontarians, she felt like it was a great time to go oversee an incredibly complex portfolio involving a bunch of other vulnerable Ontarians. Good luck, kids!

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But, beyond that, what was there to say? The pandemic is ending, we hope. There’s an election less than a year ahead. The Doug Ford government has obviously taken damage in recent months, and the Tories are trying to get their feet under them again. That will mean looking for issues that they think will be political winners for them. If they don’t cost very much money, as we exit this pandemic with a whole hell of a lot of economic carnage to wade through, so much the better.

I was reading through a piece written by my TVO.org colleague Steve Paikin when all these various different thoughts sort of congealed in my brain and became column fodder. Paikin was writing about the five members of the cabinet who have been given the boot and returned to the back benches. This is going to be a bitterly disappointing blow for them, and again, with even Fullerton surviving, there must be a degree of insult added to injury. However, one of the now demoted Tories, Laurie Scott, told Paikin that she is looking forward to getting back to constituency work. One of the big issues she had championed as a minister was the multi-billion-dollar effort to improve internet connectivity in largely rural ridings ... like Scott’s. 

Paikin’s noting of her work with rural broadband jumped out at me because this is actually a fantastic issue for precisely this moment for the Ford government. I’ve written about it here before. If there is anyone in the government looking for things to do that won’t cost a ton of money, will make us more economically productive, and can be easily lumped in with other post-pandemic spending, expanding access to broadband internet in remote areas of the province ought to be a pretty easy one.

Most Ontarians live in or near cities. It is very cost-effective to put high-capacity servers and hard-line or wireless connections in densely populated urban areas — these servers and their connections are the “backbone” of the internet. In contrast, it is really expensive to do it in lightly populated rural areas. Ontarians in urban and suburban communities would be surprised to discover just how quickly the internet pipeline narrows down to near nothingness. Thirty or 40 minutes out of a developed area, you might not have any affordable access, or any access at all, to reliable, high-speed internet. 

This is not a new issue. But it was one that loomed particularly large over the last year and a half, as every business that could to do tried to survive by going virtual, and every student across the land was literally ordered to avoid in-class learning. Keeping my two kids occupied and engaged at virtual school was a real challenge for any number of reasons. But in Toronto, decent internet access was not one of them. We are bathed in bandwidth here. A hundred kilometres to the north, well, gosh. Good luck to you.

This is not an insurmountable problem. Technology, all by itself, is going to do a ton of this work for us. Cellular networks are getting better and better at linking remote users to the broader internet (but it’s still not great). Even though it is still in beta testing, SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of low-Earth orbit satellites is showing early potential to be a complete game changer for rural connectivity. There is a lot of reason for optimism on this file.

The file Scott was already plugging away at! This could well be a winner for the government, if it stays focused on it. Another minister may end up getting the credit. But back home in the Kawarthas, Scott may at least be able to ease the sting with a solid Netflix binge, or maybe some online gaming. 

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