As Ontario Premier Doug Ford enters his second year in office, his government is facing pushback privately from his caucus, while publicly one of his top ministers acknowledges there have been communications missteps.
Mr. Ford’s caucus has voiced concerns behind closed doors about what is widely perceived as a rollout failure in the weeks following the Progressive Conservative government’s inaugural spring budget, multiple sources from inside and outside the government have told The Globe and Mail. The sources were granted anonymity by The Globe in order to speak freely about private deliberations.
Economic Development Minister and House Leader Todd Smith, speaking on behalf of the Premier’s office, said the government is proud to have passed 20 pieces of legislation during its first year, while tackling the deficit without raising taxes. But he said in some cases it has moved “too fast.”
“One of the things that I think everybody in our government would acknowledge is that we haven’t taken [the] time maybe to explain to the public why we’re changing certain things,” Mr. Smith said in an interview.
“Communications has not been up to par. I mean, we can certainly get better at that.”
The pushback from caucus over communications and policy strategies comes as Mr. Ford is expected to shuffle his cabinet as early as next week. There have been discussions in conservative circles as to whether Finance Minister Vic Fedeli will be moved from his post. But multiple insiders told The Globe that removing Mr. Fedeli from Finance would send a negative message about instability to caucus, which Mr. Fedeli led as interim leader in early 2018 in the wake of Patrick Brown’s resignation as leader.
Caucus insiders say MPPs have become more vocal about their concerns in recent weeks. At one particularly raucous caucus meeting in late April, described by one conservative source as a “bloodletting,” MPPs bluntly complained about the lack of information they received following the release of Mr. Fedeli’s budget, including cuts to library services and tree-planting initiatives. If told about the planned changes in advance, MPPs said they would have advised against them, anticipating backlash in their communities.
At the time, Mr. Ford and Mr. Fedeli were in New York, promoting the document to U.S. investors. The complaints continued, including a widespread belief that Toronto Mayor John Tory trounced Mr. Ford during a recent battle over retroactive municipal funding cuts, which the Premier then reversed. Mr. Ford also backtracked on changes to autism funding in the wake of a significant outcry.
Sources told The Globe that, in recent weeks, caucus has felt more comfortable speaking out during meetings, and that relations with the Premier’s office have improved. The office, including chief of staff Dean French, has also allowed for the creation of caucus advisory teams, which were inspired by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government.
The teams comprise a cabinet minister who is responsible to a group of MPPs, to whom they present pieces of legislation for feedback.
Mr. French, a powerful player in Mr. Ford’s orbit who has been accused of overstepping his role, was in the news again this week, after the Toronto Star reported that he had scolded a suburban MPP at a recent caucus retreat when she complained to Mr. Ford about the government’s communications strategy. The Premier’s office confirmed the incident in a statement to The Globe.
“Last week, following a caucus meeting, a member expressed that she felt she was singled out for voicing her opinion. This misunderstanding was regrettable, given both the Premier and his chief of staff have an open-door policy and hold the strong belief that all members of caucus should be encouraged to share their thoughts with them and the caucus at any time,” said Laryssa Waler, the Premier’s executive director of communications.
“Subsequent to that meeting, the Premier’s chief of staff spoke again with the member, he apologized and they had an excellent conversation.”
Mr. Smith said Mr. French is a “very passionate guy," who has good relationships with caucus members.
“Nobody’s perfect. I think mistakes do happen from time to time,” Mr. Smith said. “His job is to protect the Premier.”
The Premier’s office has seen staffing turnover in recent weeks, with the departure of top policy and communications directors, as well as two communications staffers, who moved to federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s office. Earl Provost, former chief of staff to late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and former executive director of the Ontario Liberal Party, joined the Premier’s office last month as a senior policy adviser on intergovernmental affairs.
Lobbyist Melissa Lantsman of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, who led Mr. Ford’s war room in last year’s election campaign, said Mr. Ford’s reversals on several key decisions is a result of the fact that he is a populist, not a traditional ideological conservative.
“The Premier readily changes directions when people themselves raise concerns, and frankly … that’s a really refreshing thing in politics,” she said.
“The decisions also suggest he’s ready to work collaboratively and the fight is over.”
The legislature is now on break until Oct. 28, a week after the federal election, with MPPs back in their constituencies or travelling on government business for the next five months. Mr. Smith said the government is trying to further involve caucus in decision-making, and expects to act with a more “deliberate pace” when the legislature returns.
However, MPPs could be called back to the legislature early in the wake of a teacher’s strike in late summer.
“Given the track record over the last year," Mr. Smith said, “anything can happen.”
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