Ever since an emotional Doug Ford apologized last month for his government’s botched response to the pandemic’s deadly third wave, it has been clear the Ontario Premier’s tactics have changed.
The apology came after the Progressive Conservative government faced a backlash for ignoring scientific advice and making widely condemned moves to close playgrounds and boost police powers to enforce lockdown restrictions. Mr. Ford’s government backtracked, then quickly brought in three paid sick days for workers affected by COVID-19 after months of opposition to the idea.
It also launched a co-ordinated campaign to get its own message out, blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for failing to seal the borders against new variants of the virus. The border push has included attack ads, paid for by the PC Party, that most recently aired in heavy rotation during Thursday night’s Maple Leafs-Canadiens playoff game.
A week after Mr. Ford’s tearful apology, made in isolation because he had been exposed to someone with COVID-19, it became clear who was behind the new approach.
The PCs announced that Kory Teneycke, their 2018 campaign manager and a former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper, was quitting his day job as a lobbyist and taking the reins full-time for Mr. Ford’s 2022 campaign with more than a year to go before the vote next June.
Senior party sources say Mr. Teneycke provided a fresh perspective from outside the government, with Mr. Ford and the team around him fatigued after months of crisis. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Also taking on a more prominent role was pollster Nick Kouvalis, a former aide to Mr. Ford’s late brother, Rob, when he was Toronto mayor. The party has commissioned polls every couple of weeks, and the government has increasingly used the numbers to tailor its messages. Mr. Kouvalis declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Teneycke said his strategy is to look beyond the pandemic, even as the focus rightly remains on COVID-19.
“Where we go next and what we do next is what I’m going to be very focused on,” he said in an interview. “Because elections are about the future. And laying out what our plan for the future is is really key. So that’s what I’m spending my time working on.”
It’s not just Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives who have begun to focus on the next election, even amid the pandemic. All the parties have been nominating candidates and revving up fundraising efforts behind the scenes for months while making increasingly campaign-like pledges in public.
The most obvious change for the Premier is the rationing of his public appearances. After months of constant face time, Mr. Ford has dialled back his almost-daily media conferences to less frequent weekly announcements. He rarely turns up to face scrutiny in Question Period.
While opposition critics accuse him of ducking responsibility as the pandemic reached its worst point, his advisers say the move was a return to a more conventional approach to government communications – saving the Premier for the most significant announcements while allowing his cabinet to fight the day-to-day fires.
PC sources say the Premier has long resisted curbing his public appearances during the pandemic. But his time in isolation allowed for a reset.
“I think there was a recognition that he ought not to be the messenger-in-chief just given the climate right now, people being raw and [fed up] over the state of lockdowns,” said Conservative strategist Kate Harrison, vice-president at Summa Strategies in Ottawa. “Right now the attitude is to power through and push through the summer, get as many people vaccinated as possible, and then start talking about the message that I suspect the party wants to talk about, which is economic recovery.”
The province’s new, cautious reopening plan, which won’t see restaurant patios return until mid-June, was also engineered to decrease the pressure on Mr. Ford and his cabinet by taking some of the discretion for weekly openings or closings out of their hands, with loosening lockdown rules pegged to vaccination rates and decreasing hospitalization numbers. Mr. Ford has also since asked publicly for advice on school reopenings, citing a lack of consensus on the issue.
The new approach also reflects a different decision-making process. In the past, PC sources say, Mr. Ford would go to great lengths to seek a consensus among his ministers, an approach some blame for cabinet meetings that would drag on for hours and for the disastrous response in April that prompted such a backlash. Now, more direction is coming from the top.
“It’s clear that ever since he came and made his apology to people, Premier Ford has led a more disciplined approach, in that the government will spend less time reacting to events and more time giving people confidence that there’s a real plan,” said David Tarrant, a former senior Ford aide who is now a vice-president at Enterprise, a communications consulting firm.
While critics dismiss the border push as a deflection or even a “dog whistle” for xenophobes, Mr. Tarrant says the Premier and his team are both concerned about the border and how little criticism Ottawa has faced for its performance – especially compared with Mr. Ford.
Even public-health experts normally critical of Mr. Ford have said more needs to be done to keep new variants of COVID-19 from entering Canada – although many point out that the variants are already here and that Mr. Ford’s government failed to prevent their rapid spread.
If Mr. Trudeau follows his playbook from the 2019 election campaign and chooses to use Mr. Ford as a foil during the federal election expected this fall, Ontario’s PCs plan to strike back, a party source said, rather than stay silent.
But PC sources say there is no plan to campaign with federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. The ads targeting Mr. Trudeau over border measures are not part of a co-ordinated strategy with the federal party, which chose to completely avoid any mention of the Ontario Premier in the most recent federal election.
The shift in tactics came as Mr. Ford faced drops in some opinion polls. While a polarizing figure in Ontario politics before the pandemic, he actually soared in popularity over much of last year, which was credited to folksy TV appearances in which he ranted against “yahoo” anti-lockdown protesters and price-gouging businesses.
Some polls still show Mr. Ford’s PCs with a healthy lead among voters. But an Angus Reid Institute online survey from April suggested two-thirds of Ontarians thought Mr. Ford was doing a bad job handling the pandemic. A similar number said they believed the third wave was preventable. (The online survey of 1,594 members of its Angus Reid Forum, including 444 in Ontario, is not the same as a regular public-opinion poll. Angus Reid says a polling sample of this size would normally carry a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, said Mr. Ford is not the only premier to see numbers sink dramatically amid the struggle to contain the pandemic, citing Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister.
But she said it was unclear how this would factor into a provincial election still a year away. “What we don’t know at this point is the extent to which frustration at Mr. Ford and his government will sort of dissipate in the ether of reopening … or whether it’s something that Ontario voters will carry with them to the next election.”
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