History suggests that a sitting government’s prospects for re-election in Ontario generally requires it to make peace with one of two interest groups in the province.
The teachers’ unions and the medical profession have wielded extensive political influence for decades.
Both groups represent trusted individuals with considerable impact in communities across the province. The provincial health and education budgets, over which their members act in many ways as gatekeepers, add up to some 70% of the province’s annual expenditures.
Premier Ford’s handling of the pandemic over the past year has succeeded in pitting significant swaths of their influential supporters against the government.
In 2018, the newly elected Ford administration acted quickly to cut the provincial deficit. Focus on the health and education budgets, with their heavy wage and fee for service components, were obvious priorities.
Education funding changes, a new reliance on virtual teaching techniques leading to expanded class sizes and a three-year 1% cap on teachers’ salaries drove teachers’ outrage.
By the start of the pandemic in the winter of 2020, all four Ontario teachers’ unions were engaged in some form of job action, including rotating strikes and one day strikes.
In February 2020, all four of the province’s largest teachers’ unions coordinated a province-wide walkout.
There was nothing unusual about these struggles. Ontario governments of all political stripes have long faced challenges from the powerful teachers’ unions.
The Harris Conservatives faced massive demonstrations across the province when seeking to increase teacher time in classrooms.
On Halloween 2013, the teachers staged a one-day walkout in response to collective agreements imposed by the McGuinty government.
Successive Liberal governments were subsequently accused by political opponents of “pandering” to teachers to gain their support or at least neutrality.
As the Ford government announced public school closures following the 2020 March school break, due to the pandemic, the unions grudgingly came to contract agreements.
Tensions have remained high. Over the course of the last year, teachers have called for government action in response to fresh COVID-19 waves. They were angered by school break changes. They also sought priority for teacher vaccinations and were critical of the way virtual learning was being expanded.
The latest attacks against government education policy are being promoted by a multi-million-dollar advertising blitz.
“When COVID hit, Doug Ford’s government shortchanged our students, our teachers and our education workers.”
The attack ads continue, referencing a Centre for Policy Alternatives report, “Doug Ford’s government didn’t pull its weight, leaving school boards and the federal government rushing to provide emergency education funding.”
Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) President Harvey Bischof summarized the argument as follows: “Education spending grows economic development, so Doug Ford isn’t just shortchanging education — he’s shortchanging Ontario’s recovery.”
While there may be no surprise about frayed relationships with the teachers, the outspoken criticism of broad swaths of the medical profession in response to ineffectual government COVID-19 policy represents a new and troubling feature of the political landscape for the Conservatives.
Soon after Mr. Ford won election, one of his senior political advisers told me that their political priority was not to fight both these interest groups at the same time. In his view, the Conservatives were prepared to endure multiple battles with the teachers because they believed they could establish a modus vivendi with the doctors.
In pursuit of this strategy, Dr. Reuben Devlin, former OMA head and a close confidante of the PCs, was appointed as special advisor and chair of the Premier’s Council on Improving Health Care and Ending Hallway Medicine. It was hoped that Dr. Devlin would bring the same spirit of health care innovation and use of technology to this task which he had successfully pioneered at Humber River Hospital.
Tragically, Dr. Devlin passed away in June 2020.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the government’s reputation for managerial competence; prominent members of the medical community have reinforced the criticism.
The constant attacks, in the form of interviews, petitions, open letters and podcasts, on government COVID-19 decisions, have resonated in multiple media and been given a prominence which threatens the government’s brand and reputation.
The criticism is centred on the choices the government has made to address the pandemic.
Most recently, different groups of doctors have focused on the failure of the government to take heed of its scientific advisors’ recommendations, including prioritization of essential workers’ vaccination, delayed introduction of lockdowns and the lack of closure of non-essential businesses to head off the third wave, or the refusal (until April 29) to implement paid sick leave to break the workplace cycle. Recent closure of public parks and other outdoor activities have been ridiculed.
These critiques join the pointed calls for action by hundreds of doctors and advocates holding “grave concerns” about the government’s actions to protect long term care residents, a subject upon which the Auditor General has now weighed in.
It has reached the stage where the Director of Ontario’s COVID-19 scientific advisory table said recently that he was so frustrated by the government’s pandemic response that he considered stepping down.
There is a sound reason why successive Ontario governments have sought to keep either doctors or teachers on side.
It is a political lesson which the Ford government may soon be taught again.
Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.