TORONTO — Doug Ford doesn’t miss a beat when explaining his brand of populist politics.
Standing at a podium emblazoned with one of his signature slogans — Open for Business — Ontario’s 26th premier parries a question about his leadership style with an often-used catch phrase.
“It’s for the people,” the 54-year-old said, echoing the chorus of a jingle from the election campaign that propelled him to power a year ago.
At the event, held recently at a nuclear plant, Ford — a professed non-drinker — is trying to sell the crowd on his bid to rip up a contract with The Beer Store and expand booze sales to corner stores, extolling the virtues of downing a chilled brew after a hard day’s work.
It’s the type of message that resonates with his base — often referred to as Ford Nation.
“They aren’t part of the backroom boys club at Queen’s Park,” he says of his supporters. “They’re tired of the government gouging them, every time they stick their hands in their back pocket they have Justin Trudeau’s hand in their pocket.”
The dig at the Liberal prime minister, one of Ford’s chief political foes, draws a whistle from the crowd.
It’s this plain-spoken, deeply partisan and routinely combative style that has helped Ford build his brand since entering municipal politics in 2010. It’s those same traits critics say he’s used to build a cult of personality around him.
From its first days, the government has adopted Ford’s sloganeering in its communications, dubbing itself “for the people.”
“(Ford) is a partisan’s partisan,” said Western University associate political science professor Cristine de Clercy. “For him, politics begins with the assumption of partisanship. That is an older form of political approach that I thought Ontario had worked away from.”
Ford and his office have a tight grip on what his cabinet ministers say publicly co-ordinated social media campaigns require all Tory legislators send out similar messages in unison on issues like fighting the federal carbon tax or ripping up The Beer Store contract.
Party discipline is also on display in the legislature, with even the most senior Tory cabinet ministers required to jump to their feet regularly to applaud the actions of the government.
It all turned out to be a bit much for Randy Hillier, who was ejected from Tory caucus earlier this year for not being a “team player.” Hillier said he refused to praise the government when it didn’t deserve it.
“The premier doesn’t see himself as leader of the Progressive Conservative party and he doesn’t actually see himself as premier of the province,” Hillier said. “(He sees himself) as more the leader of Ford Nation.”
Ford’s policies have been more reflective of his personal agenda — which includes helping friends — than of traditional Progressive Conservative politics, Hillier said.
He pointed to a failed attempt to appoint a long-time Ford friend as OPP commissioner as an example of the premier putting his interests over good governance. Ford’s move to slash the size of Toronto city council nearly in half, was another instance.
“We have a very cult-like atmosphere and a premier … who is settling old scores,” Hillier said. “People were looking forward to a new style but also something of substance and there has been a dramatic failure there.”
Ford’s leadership style and the strict demands for caucus to demonstrate admiration for the premier are likely to grow tiresome for his fellow Tories over time, said Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University.
“I suspect there isn’t a lot of happiness in caucus about having to do eight standing ovations when Doug Ford shows up for question period,” he said. “There are ways in which the extent of control over the backbench is probably not sustainable over four years.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the cult of personality in the premier’s office has “dangerous” implications for the province.
“The premier seeks out immediate gratification,” he said. “He often acts and thinks later. The blowback can be intense against him, but also against Ontario.”
Schreiner added that the Tory caucus’ grandstanding in the legislature makes them look foolish.
Government house leader Todd Smith, one of Ford’s most trusted cabinet ministers, defends the premier.
“The idea that we’re controlled is not in any way true,” he said. “There’s opportunity for every member of our caucus to provide input.”
Smith downplays the notion that Ford’s populism has overtaken traditional Progressive Conservative values, adding that the party has a diverse membership who hold a wide array of views.
“He’s not a guy who is ideological,” Smith said. “He’s a guy who wants to do the right thing.”
Former Progressive Conservative politician Doug Holyday, who served alongside Ford at Toronto city hall, said the premier’s impact on the Tory brand is overstated. Criticisms that only Ford and his inner circle drive the government’s agenda are hard to believe, he said.
“There are a lot of experienced MPPs that have been there quite a while,” he said. “I’d be amazed if they were just sitting there letting him decide everything for them.”