COVID-19 has changed us forever. Has it really changed Doug Ford?

Posted on June 13, 2020 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Opinion
Two years ago, Doug Ford won power by promising change.

Now, the province has indeed changed — due mostly to the power of a pandemic, not a premier. Today, it is Ford who has changed with the changing times — remoulding his public pronouncements and reinventing his political persona.

At the midpoint between his last election and his next campaign, it’s worth asking if the changes are skin deep or deeper.

Ford revamped his pitch because people are no longer buying what he was selling — there is no longer a market for reduced regulation, lower taxes and attacks against the public service. And so the new, improved premier has rebranded himself.

It began with a new tone — more empathy and civility, less hostility and mendacity. It culminated with a fresh outlook — toughening the rules, not easing red tape; owning up to systemic racism, instead of dismissing it; lamenting greedy landlords, rather than defending property rights.

It’s hard not to notice the change. Compared to the unchanged and unmoved Republican governors (and president) in the U.S., still sticking to their guns amid protests and pandemic, the premier’s shift is undeniable.

Two years is a lifetime in politics.

On June 7, 2018, Ford won power purporting — or perhaps pretending — to have all the answers, or at least the slogans. Either he knew better, or he didn’t know what he didn’t know.

Basking in his election night triumph, the Progressive Conservative leader acted as if his own irresistible brand of personal populism had swept the province. Not that he’d won by default thanks to a protest vote against a tired Liberal government and voter distrust of the NDP.

“My friends, the party with the taxpayer’s dollars is over — it’s done,” Ford boasted back then.

Weeks later, his new PC government unveiled an unprecedented throne speech setting out an agenda of disruption and demolition of government operations:

“No dollar is better spent than the dollar that is left in the pockets of the taxpayer,” the Tories insisted. “By lowering taxes, reducing the regulatory burden and making life easier for entrepreneurs, your government will make sure the world knows that Ontario is open for business…(not) tilted in the direction of insiders and the elite.”

Ford’s new government promised “a health-care system that can count on long-term stable funding — including 15,000 new long-term-care beds over the next five years … (and) respecting the parents of children with autism … (and to) respect our municipal partners.”

Within months, Ford’s Tories had unilaterally dialed back promised health funding to municipalities, stoking outrage. They had arbitrarily revamped autism programs, sparking protests. And they had done nothing on nursing-home beds apart from reduce comprehensive annual inspections, setting the stage for disaster.

On police accountability, now in the news but back then a partisan talking point, the Tories staked out an unapologetically uncritical stance: “You can count on your government to respect the men and women of Ontario’s police services — by freeing them from onerous restrictions that treat those in uniform as subjects of suspicion and scorn.”

Now, with images of police brutality reverberating on television screens, Ford is more measured in his public pronouncements. Two years later, times have changed.

In truth, Ford had already started reining in his worst instincts a year ago, even before COVID-19 torpedoed his best laid plans. With his polling numbers in free-fall throughout 2019, and the premier afraid to appear in public without being booed, he shuffled his cabinet and shunted out his discredited chief of staff Dean French — blamed for bringing out Ford’s worst instincts early on.

Time has helped to smooth out Ford’s rough edges. You can’t be premier for two years, at the centre of Canada’s second-biggest government, without learning on the job — and learning your own limitations.

The premier has raised his game. But what’s the end game — what will Ontarians want when the next election is held two years hence?

Ford will surely be held to account on nursing homes — both his crisis management style and unfulfilled reforms to long-term care. But he will also be answerable for ideological blind spots that predate the pandemic.

All his core beliefs — disruption, deregulation and deficit reduction — have been upended by a more powerful disrupter in COVID-19. Has he disowned — or merely postponed — his previous political agenda?

A good clue to Ford’s true thinking comes from his stubborn refusal — against all evidence and advice — to restore the paid sick days he eliminated before the pandemic. Or consider the disturbing findings revealed in the Star this week by Tribunal Watch, which detailed the stealth purge of Ontario’s quasi-judicial tribunals that hold landlords to account, hold a light to racism and help the disadvantaged maintain dignity — a reminder of the patronage stench that has long pervaded Ford’s government (despite his pre-election claim that “the party” is over).

Never mind the serene rhetoric on the surface, it is Ford’s underlying actions that count. They are a reminder of his early and ongoing agenda to change the province in his own image and ideology, rather than enact the change the province so desperately needs and wants.

A pandemic has disrupted the great disrupter, now the great adapter. Is Ford truly a premier transformed, or is he merely transitioning and repositioning, biding his time until next time?

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