These should be heady times for Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives.
After a decade-and-a-half in the political wilderness, they are months into government. Under Premier Doug Ford they have rapidly implemented a few big policies – largely repeals of inherited programs such as cap-and-trade carbon pricing – that give them some sense of accomplishment. They don’t face strong opposition and have yet to alienate most people who voted for them.
But by the time the legislature rose on Thursday for its winter break, many of these Tories were not in such a happy place, despite lots of forced bonhomie in public.
Self-made controversies seem to lurk around every corner, with a remarkable recent string of them punctuated by the appointment of Mr. Ford’s family friend Ron Taverner to head the provincial police.
A clear sense of policy purpose is either lacking or not being well-communicated to people outside the Premier’s office, and the work environment can be borderline toxic. One MPP has already bolted caucus, some of her former colleagues privately confess to being miserable, and more staff are eyeing the door than is usually the case in a new government.
Some of what has gotten the Tories down has been beyond Mr. Ford’s control. That included the sexual-harassment allegations that last month forced the departures of one of his few experienced ministers, Jim Wilson, and one of his senior staffers, Andrew Kimber.
Some of it is also burnout. They’ve scarcely had a moment to catch their breath since the ouster of former leader Patrick Brown last January, racing through leadership and general election campaigns. Then came a frenetic first few months in office, in which Mr. Ford decided to convene a rare summer sitting of the legislature, and ended a subsequent break early so he could invoke the notwithstanding clause to push through changes to Toronto’s municipal council.
But with the legislature not scheduled to return until February, this is a government that needs to do more than just get some rest. If the PCs are to prevent their problems from escalating, it’s already time for a reset on several big, interrelated fronts.
Set an agenda
Mr. Ford’s vague campaign platform did not provide much of a road map for governance, and he did not use the summer months after the election to develop one.
Instead, he immediately began implementing a mishmash: repeals of Liberal policies he had campaigned against (which in addition to cap-and-trade included new labour protections and a minimum-wage increase), cherry-picked spending commitments from the platform Mr. Brown was going to run on, deregulation and pet issues such as the sudden slashing of Toronto’s council. Insiders give the impression of a government that lurches toward whatever issue captures the attention of Mr. Ford or chief-of-staff Dean French in a given week, with other PCs having little idea what comes next.
The big, overarching question that the Tories still need to wrap their heads around by next spring’s budget – and that their fall economic update did little to shine light on – is how they intend to balance promised deficit reduction with Mr. Ford’s “for the people” populism. Embedded in that equation are lots of other questions about which spending or tax-cutting promises should be prioritized and which set aside, and where there is room for savings without massive political cost. Atop it is the need to signal an economic-growth strategy beyond undoing Liberal policies and putting “open for business” on roadside signs.
Once they get a better handle on medium- and long-term goals, the Tories should set a rough timeline for implementation. Most governments map out big policy announcements months in advance, allowing for legwork behind the scenes. Plotting out what he wants to be talking about through the first half of 2019, and communicating it to caucus and staff rather than springing it on them last minute, would help Mr. Ford stitch out a coherent narrative. It would also help avoid policies being rolled out before they’re ready – something that has already had consequences, ranging from the government quickly losing a lawsuit to Tesla because of its sloppy cancellation of a rebate program, to the recent mess around perceived disrespect to Franco-Ontarians.
Start fresh with caucus
Most PC MPPs seem to like Mr. Ford personally, which is no small thing since few of them supported him for the leadership. But there is unrest around the way they have been treated by Mr. French on his behalf, with the chief of staff discouraging them from even privately questioning anything the government is doing, monitoring participation in standing ovations and social media usage to make sure they’re doing enough cheerleading, and berating them for perceived signs of disloyalty.
Potential impacts go beyond the odd person fleeing, as Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MPP Amanda Simard has to sit as an independent. If caucus members are afraid to voice concerns, the government loses much of its radar for how decisions play on the ground. And if they’re consistently unhappy with their treatment, they won’t have Mr. Ford’s back when the government inevitably goes through a rough patch in the polls.
The good news for Mr. Ford is that this shouldn’t be a difficult situation to rectify, particularly given how excited many Tories were to finally reach government. Simply letting MPPs air grievances in caucus meetings without fear of reprisal, which is how it works in most governments, would go a long way. So would Mr. Ford meeting one-on-one with them during the break, and asking for honest opinions about how the government is functioning.
Establish clearer boundaries
Mr. Ford’s office has already thrown its weight around in unusual ways, such as exerting political pressure on personnel decisions at the energy utilities Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One. His government is loosening campaign-finance rules aimed at preventing cash-for-access. The Premier gives his personal cellphone number to anyone he meets – which helpfully allows conversations with everyday members of the public, but also for donors and developers and others with direct interest in government decisions. And then there are the optics of Mr. Taverner being named commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, which would investigate the Tories if they got into legal trouble, as happened with the Liberals before them.
It all adds up to a lot of warning signs about this government – elected partly because of fatigue with Liberal scandal – being at risk of endless ethics controversies.
Some of it may go with the territory of having a Premier whose political identity includes a bull-in-the-china-shop exertion of his will and some disdain for political conventions. But the Tories would do themselves a favour by taking a close look at the culture they’re creating, and setting firm expectations for how everyone in their government interacts with those outside it.
Fix the premier’s office
It’s not a coincidence that a lot of the above challenges involve Mr. French, the chief of staff. Lacking experience in provincial politics or government (as does Mr. Ford), his conduct so far – from dominating caucus and cabinet meetings to the energy-utility interventions – suggests a very overbearing interpretation of his job.
Meanwhile, the Premier’s office appears to be devolving into factions loyal to Mr. French and more aligned with Jenni Byrne, the principal secretary. And Mr. Kimber’s ignominious exit as director of issues management (which basically means putting out fires) created additional turmoil, as did the more unexplained firing of John Sinclair, an experienced and popular senior staffer.
Whether it involves replacing Mr. French outright, Mr. Ford clearly needs to make some changes to establish clearer and less contentious lines of responsibility, while adding skill sets currently missing.
There would be no shame in making such tweaks less than a year into his provincial career, and there are surely many capable conservatives eager to work for Ontario’s first PC Premier in a generation. But he should get on with it, if he hopes to tackle the other problems that threaten to drag his government down.