ANALYSIS: Ford’s firing of finance minister in cabinet shuffle is a frank admission of failure
If there’s a precedent for a premier or a prime minister leading a majority government in this country to fire the finance minister in Year 1, I don’t know it.
But that’s just what happened on Thursday at Queen’s Park when Premier Doug Ford upended his cabinet, demoting not only the minister who tabled his government’s first and only budget but also other high-profile ministers who had been leading the way on high-profile and controversial issues.
The demoted finance minister, North Bay’s Vic Fedeli, was moved to economic development. Sources close to Fedeli say he was ready to quit cabinet altogether when told he was being moved — he certainly knows how unprecedented his move is — but some frantic, last-minute phone calls from Ford’s associates convinced Fedeli to stay.
Fedeli, ever the party loyalist, likely knew that his complete removal from cabinet would shortly be followed by the first challenges to Ford’s leadership of the party. One is reminded that Ford won that hastily called leadership with next to no caucus support.
But whether Fedeli had quit or simply taken the demotion, the main takeaway of Thursday’s remarkable rearranging of the premier’s executive council is that with this shuffle, Ford is admitting that he got a lot wrong about his first year at the helm of the country’s largest and, arguably, most important province. It is as about as frank an admission of failure as one can make.
As the premier, he wears that but so do his staff and advisers who, in clearly trying to blame the problems of their government on everyone else but them, only ended up focusing attention on their culpability in the fact that Ford is now, in some polls, less popular than Kathleen Wynne was in the dying days of her government.
And if you don’t believe the polls, go back to the footage of Ford being introduced to a million Raptors fans earlier this week at Nathan Phillips Square and listen to the loud and lusty boos as Ford was introduced. Sources say this cabinet shuffle was already in the works before Monday’s Raptors celebration, but the hostile reaction of a Toronto crowd to this Toronto-based premier surely sealed all deals.
WATCH: Doug Ford walks onstage at Raptors celebration to thundering boos
His government’s unpopularity starts with an unpopular budget and subsequent bungling by the government in marketing whatever virtues were in that budget. It has not even been three months since Fedeli tabled that budget, and clearly, someone in Ford’s inner circle was blaming him for that.
But blame should have also gone to the rookie MP Peter Bethlenfalvy who, as president of the Treasury Board, badly managed its implementation. It’s no secret around Queen’s Park that Bethlenfavly, a former Bay Street banker, had been actively campaigning for Fedeli’s job, but in this shuffle, he should consider himself fortunate not to have been moved.
Ford’s government has predictably picked fights with public-sector unions. To conservatives, that’s a virtue, not a failing. It’s less virtuous for much of the general electorate. But, unpredictably and with rather disastrous results for Ford’s personal popularity, the government also picked fights with parents of autistic children.
And it was not just the picking of the fight with parents, it was the way his minister on that file, Lisa MacLeod, carried on that fight, demonizing these parents and belittling their concerns. She was demoted Thursday, losing the post of social services minister as Ford put her in charge of tourism. Ford, trying to make the best of it, noted that MacLeod will now oversee fixing up Ontario Place.
WATCH: ‘Autism isn’t the largest file, but it’s the most sensitive’ — Ford
Lisa Thompson is out as education minister after Ford’s inner circle finally conceded there was no worse communicator in his cabinet than Thompson and to have any chance of avoiding an all-out war with the province’s teachers, someone else needed to have the file.
Stepping into the education file is Stephen Lecce who, at just 32 years old, narrowly eclipses the feat of the legendary former Ontario premier Bill Davis, who took that very same job when he was just 33. Lecce is clearly a rising star and has considerable political juice as a result of this appointment.
The Davis comparison— which TVO host Steve Paikin first pointed out — may yet be a little early, but there was another successful Ontario conservative politician sitting in the swearing-in room Thursday at Queen’s Park to whom Lecce may be compared. That would be John Baird, who had just turned 30 when Mike Harris made him his minister of community and social services back in 1999. Baird, of course, would go on to become Stephen Harper’s reliable “Mr. Fixit” in the federal cabinet. Lecce himself also worked for Harper as a communications aide.
WATCH: Ford comments on former Ontario Finance Minister Victor Fedeli’s cabinet move
The other politician to now watch in Ford’s cabinet is Rod Phillips, who had been the province’s environment minister and is now the finance minister. On the environment file, Phillips demonstrated that not only could he take a difficult file, master it and communicate his brief effectively but that he also was a true team player. (One Queen’s Park watcher told me that too many ministers look like hostages when dealing with the Queen’s Park press gallery, but not Phillips.)
Ford has three years until his next date with the same voters who booed him on Monday. If he’d like to change their opinion, he would be wise to discount the counsel of his own staff — the ones that got him in this mess in the first place — and spend more time listening to the counsel of ministers Phillips and Lecce.
David Akin is the chief political correspondent for Global News.
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