Premier Ford’s COVID-19 virtual news conference from his late mother’s backyard in his Toronto riding of Etobicoke North on April 30 seemed to raise deeper questions than the ones he addressed directly.
Are we in Ontario, for example, just starting to understand Doug Ford? There have already been at least two Premier Fords, some would say. Are we now witnessing the birth of a third? (And will this one really be “Canada’s Donald Trump”?)
Only the future can answer such questions. Meanwhile, the history of the Premier’s provincial political career to date does point in certain directions.
From the beginning, Doug Ford’s victories in both the March 2018 Ontario PC leadership election and the June 2018 provincial election were not the result of his vast personal popularity.
This truth is reflected in the Abacus Data tracing of “Impressions of Doug Ford” noted by the CBC polling guru Éric Grenier, in his account of the Premier’s latest adventures.
The Progressive Conservatives did impressively win 76 seats in a 124-seat legislature on June 7, 2018 (61% of the total), with almost 41% of the province-wide popular vote.
But just before the election Abacus Data had suggested that only 27% of Ontario residents had a “positive impression” of the man who became Premier. (While 44% had a positive impression of the woman who became Leader of the Official Opposition.)
Right after the election the new Premier did have a slight honeymoon. By the start of fall 2018 Ontario residents’ positive impressions of Doug Ford had risen to 32%.
At the same time, the mainstream media was reporting that already the Ford Nation’s “PC government has made some sweeping — and controversial — changes.”
By the end of the year this was apparently not what many people of Ontario had expected from an organization still calling itself Progressive Conservative.
In December 2018, Abacus Data was showing that only 19% of Ontario residents had a positive impression of Doug Ford. The number was still at only 20% in June 2019.
Then the Premier was widely booed during the Toronto Raptors’ NBA Championship celebrations on June 16, 2019. On June 20 he announced changes to his cabinet. On June 21 his controversial and unloved first chief of staff resigned.
There was further cabinet tinkering in the fall. And at the end of the year Canadian Press could publish “A list of cuts and program changes the Doug Ford government has reversed.”
A late December 2019 Abacus Data report nonetheless explained that the “media has picked up on efforts to present a kinder, refreshed, genteel Doug Ford, but the public has yet to notice.” Positive impressions of the Premier were still at only 20%.
Nothing much happened at first in 2020. Then Premier Ford’s empathetic, non-Trumpian performance during the early coronavirus crisis changed everything.
His Abacus Data positive impressions literally doubled from 23% in March 2020 to 46% in May. The new improved Premier Ford was still at 46% four months later in October 2020.
The second and third waves of COVID-19 started to change things again. The number dropped to 39% in January 2021. It fell to 34% in mid-April. Most recently it has dropped as low as 28%.
Overall, Premier Ford had an average positive impression of 28% during his first six months in office. This fell to an average of 20% over the 14 months from December 2018 to March 2020 — the reign of the “Unpopular Premier Ford.”
From May 2020 to mid-April 2021 average positive impressions of Doug Ford doubled to 40% — the reign of the “Popular Premier Ford.”
Now the Premier is back down to 28%. But his continuing supporters can urge that the Ontario PCs led by Doug Ford won a majority government in June 2018, when his positive impression number was even less.
Yet Doug Ford’s April 30 virtual news conference also raised the prospect of another “Unpopular Premier Ford,” between now and the next Ontario election on June 2, 2022.
Back in May 2019 a Montreal blog ran an over-blown piece headlined “Fox News Just Praised Doug Ford For Being The Trump Of Canada And He Loved It.”
It was one of the forces driving the “Popular Premier” of May 2020–April 2021 that he seemed to have grown beyond insults of this sort.
The leader in his mother’s backyard on April 30, however, indulged in such former presidential rhetoric as “last week the new Indian variant was reported in Ontario and it didn’t swim here I can tell you that.”
A Premier who really was Canada’s Donald Trump could be someone not enough people of Ontario will vote for again, especially in the age of Joe Biden.
Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.