COMMENTARY: Doug Ford’s desire to settle scores overshadows his populism
A year ago, Doug Ford was elected premier of Ontario on a simple slogan: For the People.
Taking a page from Donald Trump’s populist playbook, he bashed the elites, promised to fix provincial finances, and vowed to make Ontario “open for business.” Weary of 14 years of Liberal rule, voters gave him 76 of 124 seats in the legislature.
On election night, at party headquarters, Ford’s name was plastered everywhere; the Progressive Conservative Party logo was a mere afterthought. It was a masterstroke of rebranding — and a harbinger of what was to come.
While Ford has kept many of his promises — axing the carbon tax, finding savings in government, reforming labour laws — he has also done many things his party never contemplated, but that matter a great deal to him personally. Many of these involve Toronto, the city that rejected him first in the mayoral election of 2014, and then again during the recent provincial vote.
Less than two months after becoming premier, Ford cut the number of city councilors in half — on the eve of another municipal election. Later that year, he announced the province was taking over Toronto’s subway system. Most recently, he dived into urban planning, promising to allow developers to drastically increase density near subway stops — including those in low-rise residential neighborhoods — under the pretext that this will alleviate the city’s housing shortage.
Make no mistake, however: none of these actions have anything to do with good governance, and everything to do with settling scores.
WATCH BELOW: Ford government set to adjourn Ontario legislature until after federal election
Chopping council in half was a way of eliminating the wards of left-leaning councilors who would have criticized Ford once in office, and potentially frustrated his agenda. Taking over the subway gave him the means to resurrect a multi-stop Scarborough subway line, a pet project of his late brother Rob. And pandering to developers is something he alluded to once before during the election campaign, when he mused about building in the Greenbelt, an idea he quickly walked back when it generated a public outcry.
Indeed, for a politician who hews to the slogan “promises made, promises kept,” Ford has developed a love for the U-turn when things go sideways. After cuts to French language services last summer infuriated the francophone community, Ford partially reversed them. When an overhaul of the province’s autism program resulted in mass demonstrations, Ford changed course. When health care restructuring got a bad rap, that went on hold as well.
Poor planning has sunk many of his initiatives, and the sheer number of bills passed in his first year — 18 at last count — suggest that the government is seeking to do too much, too soon, without paying attention to the details.
Ford also labours under another fixation: alcohol. With his buck-a-beer pledge, legalizing tailgate parties, and the move to increase the availability of beer in convenience stores, Ford seems determined to enable Ontarians to drink more. The government paints this as a question of personal responsibility and fairness; why shouldn’t adults be able to buy booze where and when they choose? True enough, but the amount of time and effort expended on this cause is completely disproportionate to its objective.
To wit: Tory MPPs spent last weekend posting videos to social media lamenting the fact that they can’t buy beer in their local grocery. Monty Python couldn’t have produced better satire. On a more serious note, however, breaking the contracts with beer companies who currently sell through the Beer store may cost taxpayers millions of dollars — and counter the very “open for business” mantra Ford holds dear.
And therein lies the paradox of Ford’s first year.
While the premier is tackling many issues of great importance — a $15-billion deficit, a shortage of hospital beds, a failing education system — he gets repeatedly mired in his own pettiness. Whether this is a personal failing or an inability to transition from the business world to government, where you can’t impose a my-way-or-the-highway mentality, it has eroded public support to the point where it now threatens his federal cousins in the upcoming national election.
The solution? Ford is putting the government on a five-month summer break, not to return until after the federal vote. Out of sight, out of mind? Perhaps. Or a way to deploy troops at ground level, since they won’t have to show up at Queen’s Park every day. Either way, it unnecessarily opens the door to yet more critique.
There is no question that the Ontario PCs have been hard at work, nose to grindstone, ever since they took office. They have a clear mandate for change. But in their pursuit of it, they are alienating the very people they want to serve.
They need to take care that they don’t cut off their own noses, just to spite those who came before.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.