Ford's cabinet needs to find its voice
Premier Doug Ford bragged about the size of the PC caucus this week, noting that the people of Ontario “voiced their opinion on electing 76 members across the province.”
After a tumultuous summer sitting of the legislature, a good number of Ontarians must be wondering what happened to 75 of the Progressive Conservatives they sent to Queen’s Park two months ago. And, most particularly, the 20 who joined Ford in cabinet.
Because, more days than not, the running of Ontario has seemed to be a one-man show.
Unless, that is, Environment Minister Rod Phillips — a well-respected business and civic leader — really does think that tearing up contracts, including one project $100 million and 10 years in the making, is the right way for the government to do business and attract foreign investment.
And Health Minister Christine Elliott, long a fierce advocate for those with special needs, suddenly believes Ford knows more than health experts on how best to save the lives of drug addicts.
And Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark has somehow convinced himself that his constituents in Leeds-Grenville, all the way east of Kingston, really did elect him to slash Toronto’s council in half.
As members of Ford’s cabinet, these are among the things they have spent their days publicly extolling.
And it’s instructive to recall a crucial point during the provincial election campaign where Doug Ford started to look particularly unready to govern Canada’s largest province. His steady stream of simplistic slogans in place of answers to Ontario’s problems was wearing thin. His refusal to produce a costed platform was raising questions. And scandals in ridings were starting to add up.
That’s when the Progressive Conservative campaign machine shifted the focus to the party’s star candidates, including Phillips, Elliott and Caroline Mulroney.
The subtext was clear: These were the people who would temper Ford’s my-way-or-the-highway bully tendencies that were so evident during his time at Toronto City Hall.
That is, of course, a variation of what people said about U.S. President Donald Trump during his nasty and chaotic campaign, and we’ve all seen how well that has worked out.
But instead of lifting Ontario beyond Ford’s brand of populist measures and chaos creation, his cabinet seems to be trailing behind as he races from one policy file to the next.
He’s thrown into turmoil Hydro One and green energy companies; Canada’s largest city whose election is now the subject of at least one court proceeding; schools on the issue of sex education; and the lives of the poorest among us who have lost part of a much-needed welfare increase and are bracing for yet more changes.
The Government House Leader Todd Smith summed all this up in a cheery fashion as the legislature adjourned until Sept. 24. “The one thing I learned about our premier over the last couple of weeks is that he loves this place, he loves keeping his promises and he doesn’t like to keep people waiting,” he said.
Ford has moved fast, especially when it comes to getting rid of people, policies and programs tied to the last Liberal government. Hydro One’s CEO and board, Ontario’s chief investment officer and chief scientist were all shown the door. Ontario’s cap-and-trade program to tackle climate change through pricing carbon, a modern sex education curriculum that raised the ire of social conservatives, a basic income pilot for the poor and a law that would have enhanced police oversight were all tossed aside.
There’s been much less on the building side of things. Ford handed the Toronto police chief millions to do with as he sees fit, privatized cannabis sales and launched buck-a-beer.
Now, it is possible that some of Ford’s cabinet ministers put their professional lives on hold to run for office because they thought the minimum price of beer was too expensive, by 25 cents. But it’s doubtful.
And yet, they have been reduced to touting this policy that breaks just about every conservative principle of government there is. Ford promised it and so they’re nodding along like it's a great thing even though they’ve had to provide a form of subsidy to beer makers to make it happen on even the smallest of scales.
On beer this hardly matters. But what happens when Ford turns his mind to actually governing Ontario? That means health care, finance and substantive issues in education, social services, justice and the environment.
Will his 20 cabinet ministers and the rest of his caucus simply go along with whatever Ford — and the unelected officials in his office — come up with?
That’s certainly what they did with the shocking surprise he delivered to Toronto.
They have vigorously adopted Ford’s ridiculous line that they consulted with voters on halving city council, two months into a municipal campaign, because they promised to “reduce the size and cost of government.”
It’s nothing short of preposterous to claim this provincial election slogan provides a mandate for undermining municipal government. It’s an enormous hoax perpetrated by Ford and the “all-stars” in his cabinet are helping to prop it up.
What will it take for these cabinet ministers to find their voice?
As the summer session ended this week, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said: “I don’t think that this is necessarily the barometer for the next four years.”
She was speaking of the fiery tone of the debate in the legislature. But, hopefully, when they return to the legislature it turns out to mean more than that.