As 2019 draws to a close, what should Jolly St. Nick mark beside Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s name: naughty or nice?
It’s a complicated question because 2019 has been a tale of two governments and two leaders. In June, after months of outcry and plummeting poll numbers, Ford shuffled his cabinet and put new faces in the key portfolios of finance, education, and children’s services.
At the same time, a cronyism scandal cost Ford’s mercurial chief of staff his job. Dean French was replaced by Jamie Wallace, an experienced and even-tempered political operative.
Those changes marked the beginning of a new look and tone for the administration.
The government walked back controversial policies. It went back to the drawing board on autism services, deep-sixed proposed changes to environmental regulations, and even, in the words of the union, opened up “the piggy bank” to keep educational support workers on the job.
Ford himself has dialed down the bombast and curbed his more combative tendencies.
During the federal campaign, Justin Trudeau painted Ford as a bogeyman that Canada could not afford — clubbing him repeatedly like a political pinata. Ford refused to take the bait and even after the ballots were counted, he shrugged it off as “just politics, not personal.”
In his first year in office, Ford waged war on Toronto city hall, cutting council in half and savaging Mayor John Tory’s leadership at almost every opportunity.
Now with a deal to build the Ontario Line while dropping plans to take over Toronto subways, Ford and Tory are newly minted political BFFs.
And when MPPs returned to Queen’s Park in October, the partisan temperature was considerably lower. Rote standing ovations were replaced by conciliatory statements about getting along for the betterment of the province.
The sudden change in direction is enough give some observers whiplash, but Beaches-East York NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown isn’t buying it.
“It’s important to understand that while the premier and his caucus are yelling less and, on the surface, appear more put together, their perspectives haven’t changed,” said Berns-McGown.
Even if most Progressive Conservative policies remain the same, Ford seems to have learned the value of being boring. Former Premier Bill Davis famously set the template never-too-hot, never-too-cold leadership in Ontario that was successfully copied by Dalton McGuinty.
After starting 2019 as a disruptor, Ford now appears to be striving for the middle of the road.
So as Santa mulls whether it will be coal or candy for the premier, perhaps the choice isn’t just between naughty or nice. The truth, at least in the latter part of 2019, is Ford was… nicer.