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From autism to public health, a year of backtracks for the Doug Ford government

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is seen during a media availability in Toronto on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is seen during a media availability in Toronto on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – Doug Ford‘s government has backtracked on about a dozen policies and promises in 2019 – an unprecedented amount symptomatic of an on-the-fly style of governing that marked his early days in power, critics and observers say.

From a wildly unpopular Ontario autism program to cuts to municipal public health and childcare funding to a promise to upload Toronto’s subway, the year has seen many significant plans yanked back, often after outcry reached a fever pitch.

“I think the bottom line is their cut-first-and-think-later approach to governing simply isn’t working,” said Green party Leader Mike Schreiner. “They’re essentially admitting it’s not working either, given how many things they’ve backtracked on.”

READ MORE: A list of cuts and program changes the Doug Ford government has reversed

Early this year, the backtracks began when the government scrapped an element of a then-proposed law that could have opened up the province’s protected Greenbelt to development. The Tories had faced criticism over it, but nowhere near the level that was still to come over a new autism program announced the following month.

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Then-social services minister Lisa MacLeod announced that the government would clear 23,000 children from the waiting list by giving everyone up to either $20,000 or $5,000, depending on age and family income – far short of the amounts needed for intensive therapy. Condemnation was swift and furious, with parents staging sustained protests over a program they said would ensure children couldn’t access the amount of treatment they need.

After initially standing firm, by the next month the plan had essentially been scrapped, and in June so was the minister, demoted in a cabinet shuffle.

Focus Ontario: Hamilton LRT Cancelled
Focus Ontario: Hamilton LRT Cancelled

That shuffle, which saw many top ministers moved around and many new faces promoted into cabinet, marked a reset of sorts, said Jamie Ellerton, principal at Conaptus public relations and a former Tory staffer.

“I think if you look at the combative defiance that defined the early tenure of this government it was clear it wasn’t resonating with the province,” he said. “There was a lot of on-the-fly, learn-as-you’re-going processes in this government and I think they kind of changed out of necessity.”

The day after the cabinet shuffle also saw the departure of the premier’s controversial chief of staff, Dean French. The new chief of staff, Jamie Wallace, has been credited for ushering in a more constructive and professional environment.

Parents upset at Queen’s Park about Ford government’s latest autism program delay
Parents upset at Queen’s Park about Ford government’s latest autism program delay

“They just kind of came out guns blazing in those early days,” Ellerton said. “They didn’t do the homework to kind of line up and listen to where people were at. One of the things they’ve gotten a lot better at doing in recent months is listening.”

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That sentiment is echoed by the premier’s office.

“After moving at an unprecedented pace in our first year, we have demonstrated that we are a government that listens,” spokeswoman Ivana Yelich said in a statement.

The government also initially stood firm on municipal funding cuts to public health and child care, but after weeks of backlash from mayors including through news conferences, petitions, and a public campaign, the province reversed course – partially.

It cancelled the in-year, retroactive cuts that were the focal point of mayors’ anger, and later announced that most of the rest would go ahead, just on a longer timeline.

READ MORE: Ontario auditor general to probe Hamilton LRT project costs

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said that was one example in which the Tories “softened the edges.”

“Some of the reversals, I describe it as they’ve taken three steps backward and one step forward,” he said.

Cuts to legal aid funding caused a huge uproar eariler this year, and recently the new attorney general announced that while this year’s $133 million – or 30 per cent – cut would go ahead, further cuts of $31 million planned for the next two years would be cancelled.

Teachers were upset by the government announcing plans to increase high school class sizes from an average of 22 to 28 and require students to take four e-learning courses to graduate. The new education minister has since partially walked that back to a class size increase to 25 and two e-learning courses.

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“They’ve taken things from bad to much, much worse and now they’re walking it back a tiny bit, but it’s still gone from bad to worse,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Conservative Premiers Ford, Moe, Higgs to consider implementing new nuclear reactor technology
Conservative Premiers Ford, Moe, Higgs to consider implementing new nuclear reactor technology

Genevieve Tellier, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, said next year may see more reversals.

“My guess is that people will still fight because those who have been opposing the government kind of won,” she said. “So others will try the same tactic, I believe, because there are potential gains to be made…Will the government do it again? That’s where I’m not too sure.”

Other notable backtracks include deciding not to upload Toronto’s subway system, as promised during the election, un-cancelling plans for a French-language university, and swiftly revoking two lucrative foreign appointments after reports emerged they had personal ties to Ford’s then-chief of staff, Dean French.

READ MORE: Ontario NDP raise concerns about cancelled eastern wind farm

In a more unusual scenario for this government, a backtrack just this month caused outrage, rather than the other way around.

Municipal politicians and transit advocates in Hamilton were incensed after learning the government was backing away from a promise to support a light-rail transit line there, citing rising cost estimates. The critics showed up to a scheduled press conference by Caroline Mulroney, which was soon cancelled, with staff blaming security concerns.

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