Doug Ford is in the soup again. This time, his troubles arise from a decision by his Progressive Conservative government to bring in updated licence plates for Ontario motor vehicles. A simple matter, you might think. Except for Mr. Ford and his crew, even a minor announcement can bring a refreshing plunge into the bouillabaisse.
The government rolled out the new plates at the start of the month. They have a new design – white numbers and letters on a blue background instead of blue on white – and a new slogan – “A Place to Grow” instead of “Yours to Discover.” Officials said the plates would be more robust than the old ones, which sometimes peeled and had to be replaced. They would have a “fresh, more dynamic look.” They would use a brighter, high-definition material that was a “proven technology” across Canada.
Mr. Ford himself was photographed at a government office where motorists were collecting new plates. “I’m excited to announce that Ontario’s new, more durable license plates are now available at your local @ServiceOntario!” he tweeted.
There is just one tiny problem. They can be hard to read, especially at night. Some motorists and police are finding the plate numbers disappear in a reflective glow when headlight beams hit them. Given that the whole point of licence plates is to be visible, this would appear to present a difficulty. Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada said that easy-to-read plates are “obviously crucial” if people are to report impaired or dangerous drivers. The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police weighed in, too.
The opposition parties had a field day with PlateGate, as social media promptly christened it. The NDP’s Jennifer French remarked in the legislature that, “I thought Ontario was a place to grow, not a place to glow.”
The smart thing for the Ford government to do would have been to say, oops, sorry, we’ll fix this. Instead, it at first defended the glow-in-the-dark plates. Government and Consumer Services Minister Lisa Thompson said that they had been through rigorous, exhaustive testing and “we have absolute confidence in our plates.” As reporters looked on agog, she even said it was never an option to stay with the old “Liberal plates,” which in fact have been around for longer than the last, Liberal government. Liberal plates?
All of this made it doubly humiliating when the government had to back down and concede that, yes, the plates had issues after all. Its new approach is to blame the supplier. The Premier’s office said he has complained to 3M, which says it stands by its products and is working to remedy the problem. Drivers with the new plates will get new, new plates to replace them.
Anyone who has followed the Ford government since it took office in June, 2018, will discern a pattern: ill-considered move followed by sudden reversal. An editorial in this paper described its style as “ready, fire, aim.” Mr. Ford seems to have a positive talent for getting into trouble. From his defence of the naming of his friend to head the provincial police to the axing of a program to plant 50 million trees, he has rarely been out of it. He abandoned plans to revamp regional government and ditched an attempt to take over ownership of the Toronto subway. He saw his chief of staff resign when it came out that he had ties to two people who got appointments (quickly revoked) to cushy jobs representing Ontario in New York and London – a bad look for a premier who says he runs a government “for the people.”
The problem isn’t that Mr. Ford is a modern-day Attila, laying waste to government services. Given how spendthrift his Liberal predecessors were, doubling the provincial debt in only a decade, some sort of retrenchment was inevitable. Ontario now spends more on debt interest than on postsecondary education, the Fraser Institute reports.
His cuts are not as deep as some feared, and many have been reversed under pressure. The government will not even balance the books until 2023, at current rates of spending. It is promising to spend billions on mass transit, a welcome pledge for booming Toronto.
The trouble is more a matter of simple competence. Canada’s most populous province needs a steady hand on the helm. Instead, it has a government that can’t even bring in new licence plates without landing head first in hot broth.