Let nobody accuse Doug Ford of being unwilling to quickly make personnel changes, when things aren’t going well.
Of the 20 ministers appointed to the Ontario Premier’s cabinet last summer, only a handful hold the same responsibilities after Thursday’s shuffle – a remarkable acknowledgment that his first year in office has been a mess, punctuated by the demotion of Finance Minister Vic Fedeli after just one budget.
But Mr. Ford’s decisiveness on such matters apparently has its limits. The one office he seems most reluctant to change is the one most responsible for the government’s dysfunction: his own.
Some ministers who have now been demoted contributed to the government’s early woes. But in what remains a highly centralized system of governance, most ministers need a strong and stable sense of direction from the Premier’s Office to perform well. The lack thereof set up the first iteration of Mr. Ford’s cabinet to fail – and as of now, there is little reason to believe it won’t do the same to the second one.
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Within the first few months of Mr. Ford’s government, there was speculation that he would have to imminently replace his chief of staff, Dean French. Instead, Mr. French has remained in place, while senior staff not loyal to him have been driven away.
The unusually tense work environment, under Mr. French’s management, has been documented by The Globe and Mail. As with other members of the Progressive Conservative caucus, ministers are under constant monitoring for their loyalty, and expected to perform feats of obsequiousness. That can be all the more the case with their aides, which may help explain an early staff exodus across government.
Such unpleasantness might just be the cost of doing business if it were in service of a well-considered, hard-driving agenda. But it mostly seems to be in service of chaos.
Most modern premiers’ offices co-ordinate policy rollouts by ministers on a schedule that looks months ahead. In this case, according to those familiar with the government’s operations, it’s more like a matter of days. Ministers’ offices rarely know what will strike the fancy of Mr. Ford’s office, or when, and announcements are so hurriedly pulled together that the government is often unable to provide details, let alone frame the policy case in advance.
Sometimes, the Premier himself seems caught off guard by what his government is doing, struggling to defend spending cuts and in some cases climbing down from them.
And meanwhile, some of the biggest controversies that have contributed to Mr. Ford’s grim poll numbers – among them last year’s bizarre upending of municipal elections in Toronto and its suburbs, and a slew of patronage appointments at odds with the government’s belt-tightening message – have come not from any minister’s office but from Mr. Ford’s shop.
It’s debatable how much all this should be pinned on the Premier’s staff and how much on the Premier. Mr. Ford came to office with virtually no experience in provincial politics and extremely limited knowledge of his government’s functions, and is not known to be interested in deep briefings. He seems to at once gravitate to political fights, and struggle to maintain his resolve when there is a public backlash, sometimes leading him to pull the rug out from under ministers. And he does not erect many barriers around himself, directly and informally taking advice from an array of people outside government, leading to sudden changes of mind that can catch his staff off guard.
But short of firing himself, his best available fix would be to surround himself with an experienced, competent and calming executive team – a description few around this government would apply to his current staff.
The cabinet shakeup may help a little, at least publicly. Rod Phillips, now at finance after overseeing a relatively deft rollout of the government’s environmental policy, has as good a shot as anyone at smoothly articulating this government’s fiscal agenda. Todd Smith, now at social services, will be a softer touch than Lisa MacLeod was. Stephen Lecce, a former federal Conservative staffer now at Education, is known for sharp political-communication instincts.
But it may also increase pressure on Mr. Ford to fix behind-the-scenes processes. Effectively blaming the government’s problems on cabinet is something a premier can probably only do once.
A lot of Tories around Queen’s Park have been willing to blame Mr. French for their government’s problems, in part because they find Mr. Ford likeable in their dealings with him personally. But if the government’s performance doesn’t vastly improve, with the new set of ministers running into the same problems as the old ones without Mr. Ford doing anything about it, the Premier is going to wear it.