By Hershell Ezrin
The current avalanche of criticism is threatening to bury the political prospects of Ontario’s Premier.
Every political leader has faced abuse at some time.
In Ontario, the vitriol directed at the judgement of Kathleen Wynne in her final days in office was brutal. Former Conservative leader Patrick Brown’s alleged missteps were put under the microscope before a staff and caucus revolt saw him replaced by Mr. Ford.
Some of Premier Ford’s specific decisions have been criticized over the past three years. The recurring lack of meaningful consultation, and doing the opposite of what elites would have, remain hallmarks of his administration’s decision-making process.
However, there remained little permanent damage to his political brand.
That has all changed with the 24/7 focus on life and death issues revolving around COVID-19 responses.
The spotlight on Premier Ford is unrelenting.
How can the Conservative leader respond to turn around the negative wave? Will his previously compliant caucus (with one or two exceptions now pushed to the outside) want to campaign next year under his leadership?
Don Martin, a veteran national political commentator, neatly summarized a chorus of recent criticisms. In a column headlined “Time for Adult Supervision or Time for a Premier Replacement”, Martin argued:
“I’ve never seen such raging ineptitude as Ford is now showing as Ontario premier.
And never have life-or-death actions and reactions fallen so short of the minimum threshold for competent leadership.
The only consistency shown by Doug Ford in recent months has been boneheaded inconsistency … His guiding principle seems to be to lock down where he doesn’t need to and leave open areas he should have closed.”
The on again off again school closure messaging pitting Minister against the Premier is an example of confusion at the highest levels undermining trust in the provincial decision-making process.
Media investigations have speculated that a few hot spot vaccination targets were bumped up as priorities because they were located in Conservative held ridings.
Premier Ford’s latest stay at home and policing lockdown orders have cost him the benefit of the doubt that most non-partisan members of the public usually accord to politicians.
The voters do not expect perfection in their political leaders but they do want to see reasonable plans, delivered competently.
The Premier, now perceived as a one-man band, has ended up owning every policy misfire instead of basking in the credit for things gone well.
Perhaps a more experienced politician might have avoided this trap. Others will argue that this approach would undermine Ford’s initial public attraction as the anti-politician.
Ford’s protective armour of business experience has been damaged. His judgment is being skewered by repeated criticisms about how he and his government have handled the pandemic.
The Premier was isolating away from the Legislature last week, for the legitimate reason that a close staff member had been exposed to COVID-19. In the current hostile climate, the immediate presumption was that he was “missing in action.”
When his communications staff spun a story that he was working non-stop to canvas friendly allies for extra vaccines for Ontario, the Opposition pointed out that Mr. Ford was able to find time to Zoom into two $1,000 fundraising events for his party.
Mr. Ford is also suffering by comparison with other political leaders. The Premier continues to blame others while other politicians deliver results.
When Moderna delayed vaccine shipments, the Prime Minister quickly filled the void with announcements of expedited purchases from Pfizer. Toronto Mayor Tory devised urgent plans for pop-up vaccinations in hotspots, including the use of so-called Ambassadors and targeted multi-lingual advertising to encourage participation.
The late Liberal Senator Keith Davey once said that politicians can survive the public being mad about specific decisions. Watch out, he continued, when they start to make fun of you.
How would anyone interpret the scathing tweet last week that the Ford government should be shut down during the third wave because it is not an essential service?
The Premier is not without options to brake the free-fall in public approval.
Ford has already apologized and reversed some his egregious policy initiatives. He has described these policies as being “poorly communicated and poorly executed.”
Acknowledging the obvious never hurts.
If Ontario reaches an eminently doable target of 40% vaccination completed by May 5, Ford can claim some credit.
Adopting previously recommended policies such as paid sick leave, accelerating hot spot vaccination programs and accepting support from the federal government and other provinces to reinforce Ontario’s overstretched health care sector do not seem too great a reversal, given the gravity of the situation.
On the broader policy front, previous governments caught in such downdrafts have often offered tax cuts or GST reductions to entice voter support.
Shifting cabinet ministers and staff to reset the government yet again (remember Vic Fedeli or Dean French) may be too little too late.
The Premier may be banking on the electorate not being willing to take a chance on two unproven opposition leaders. That would be ignoring that it is governments who defeat themselves.
As long as there is no internal alternative to Mr. Ford’s leadership, it will be harder for the PCs to refresh themselves.
The protection afforded by a majority government and the remaining year before a fixed election date offer Mr. Ford the best hope for electoral revival.
Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.