Martin Regg Cohn: Doug Ford summons his inner Dale Carnegie
Whatever it is he’s doing, Doug Ford is getting good at it.
While his honeymoon endures, the premier of the right can do no wrong: In the first post-election poll published in the Toronto Star, a majority of voters remain strongly supportive of the new premier’s style.
Give Ford credit — he’s not a do-nothing premier, and he’s doing what he said he’d do: Disrupting our politics, dismantling old programs, disrespecting his critics in the Legislature.
So far so good, for better or for worse.
As promised, he has sidelined the overpaid top leadership of Hydro One in order to save ratepayers a couple of pennies on their bill, at the expense of spooking investors. He has killed cap and trade to save motorists a few pennies at the pump, at the cost of environmental protection. And he has cancelled the updated sex education curriculum, offering socially conservative parents a proverbial penny for their online thoughts on sexuality.
Ford is delivering on an ambitious, contentious agenda, and there’s no stopping him. As the premier boasts at every opportunity, “Promise made, promise kept!”
During this week’s debut in the Legislature’s daily question period, he stood his ground, staring down and putting down the NDP opposition while lobbing a rhetorical bombs with aplomb. “We support our police, unlike the Leader of the Opposition and unlike their party that are police-haters, military-haters, veteran-haters, poppy-haters,” Ford scowled as his backbenchers howled.
Speaker Ted Arnott ordered him to withdraw those unparliamentary taunts against NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Arnott also admonished PC backbenchers to stop rising reflexively for standing ovations every time their premier spoke.
But in his first few weeks on the job, Ford has set out to prove he’s no pushover, and that he won't be easily pushed off his agenda. Despite his legislative inexperience, the premier has exceeded expectations while lowering the bar.
Whither the opposition? It is literally surrounded by the overflow of elected Progressive Conservatives who spill over onto both sides of the house, interspersed between the NDP, Liberal and Green MPPs.
While Horwath’s New Democrats are basking in their promotion to the Official Opposition role, the realization is slowly sinking in: even with an impressive 40 seats, they have little strength when they are so badly outnumbered by 76 Tories.
No matter how much the NDP is chuffed, they have huffed and puffed to little avail. Meanwhile, the loss of official party status for the Liberals means they barely get one question a day, resulting in PC backbenchers — who ask softball questions of their own government — eating up almost as much time as the opposition.
Yet for all his undisguised hostility to Horwath, and his barely concealed paranoia around the media, the premier gives the impression of a politician trying to remake himself as a kinder, gentler embodiment of Ford Nation. He still distances himself from reporters — retreating behind a rope barrier to keep questioners five metres away — but Ford is now on his best behaviour in public settings, methodically thanking journalists for each question (until, that is, his staff decree an early end to news conferences, clapping loudly to drown out further questions).
It is as if Ford is summoning his inner Dale Carnegie to the fore. A disciple of the famous self-help guru, as a young man the premier devoured his seminal book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
He then went on to win elections and influence voters.
One of the book’s biggest exhortations is to “smile” — a look Ford now flashes frequently at Queen’s Park, appearing earnest to some, eerie to others. But can he remain faithful to Carnegie’s other prescriptions for the successful salesman?
The book famously promises to “increase your popularity ... help you to win people to your way of thinking ... increase your influence, your prestige, your ability to get things done ... make you a better salesman ... make you a better speaker.”
But there are bits in the book that Ford has forgotten, such as, “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it ... show respect for the other person’s opinions.” The table of contents begins with, “Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offence or Arousing Resentment.”
Of course, that wasn’t quite the premier’s playbook during the election campaign. Offending opponents and stoking resentments seemed persuasive, as when Ford cast himself as a tax-fighter who would sideline those “insiders (who) got rich off of your money.”
He knew how to side with the little guy, understanding their fears, frustrations and fulminations, precisely as Carnegie prescribed. “If you know what people want and can show them that they will get it by following your proposals, success is yours,” the book promises.
Promise made. Promise kept.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn