Jonathan Malloy is a professor of political science at Carleton University and co-editor of The Politics of Ontario.
The refusal of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government to follow the new trend of releasing its mandate letters to cabinet ministers means we have to continue to guess where this government is going. But much has already happened. This summer has been a time of upheaval in Ontario politics, with Doug Ford’s government moving swiftly in multiple directions, often provoking strong and vehement opposition.
In some ways, this is strikingly similar to another summer, 23 years ago, in 1995, when another Ontario Progressive Conservative government was elected to power under Mike Harris. But in other ways, the Ford and Harris governments are very different, especially when it comes to transparency about their plans and priorities.
The similarities are clear. Both governments were unexpected surprises. The PCs were not expected to win in 1995, and Doug Ford’s meteoric rise to the premiership was inconceivable less than a year ago. Both governments have also set a fast course of policy reversals and U-turns on multiple fronts, often challenging what had appeared to be long-settled consensus. And each has sparked immediate resistance in a polarized political environment. Neither of them sought or enjoyed a benign postelection honeymoon.
But in other ways, the two governments are completely different. Under Mr. Harris, the PCs came in with an exceptionally clear view of what they wanted to accomplish, all laid out in their “Common Sense Revolution” policy platform. And their takeover was a clockwork operation. Unlike many newly elected governments, they had thought beyond election day and already had specific and detailed plans on how to implement their priorities. While some senior bureaucrats were fired and subsequent deep cuts and rollbacks of union rights led to a public service strike in 1996, the Harris government also showed a sophisticated understanding of the non-partisan and professional role of the public service, setting clear directions that contrasted with their erratic NDP predecessors. The Harris government was tough and confrontational, but also informed, disciplined and transparent inside and outside the government about what it was doing and where it was going.
In contrast, the Ford government is one of constant surprises. Allowance must be given to Mr. Ford’s short time as leader and the chaotic year of the PCs that left little time for postelection planning. But the reactive and bombshell nature of the Ford government is still remarkable. Some items such as the rollback of the sex-education curriculum or discarding cap-and-trade policies were electoral promises and to be expected. But the sudden downsizing of Toronto City Council and a major shift on cannabis policy were unforeseen and have created policy messes. This is the chaotic context that provokes so much interest in what else cabinet ministers might be charged with doing.
The Harris government, of course, came up with its own surprises, most notably its own reorganization of municipal government in Ontario that was not mentioned in the Common Sense Revolution. But that only took place in 1997, well after the election, and was guided by a well thought out policy framework. The Ford government does not seem to have any framework for its priorities, and its reactive approach of freezing everything possible in the public service, without a clear plan forward, is a classic short-term administrative solution that inevitably leads to new problems and long-term pathologies.
The Ontario public policy environment in 2018 is one of confusion and paralysis, quite different from the Harris era. Mandate letters in 1995 were not the public-relations vehicles that they have become since Justin Trudeau released his letters in 2015. And the Harris government also operated in the age of mainstream media, not the chaotic Twitterverse. But regardless, it was exceptionally smart in its communications and general transparency. It treated reporters largely as professionals rather than the enemy and was ready with clear information about what it was doing. The Ford government does not have the same luxury of a controllable set of players, but more importantly, its own chaotic approach makes it impossible to communicate what it is trying to do. Its mandate letters may not be very revealing, but in this vacuum of speculation, they would at least be a start.
In the end, the contrast reveals the larger problem with our political parties. The complete flip in policy plans between Patrick Brown’s and Mr. Ford’s PCs suggests the party is an empty vessel, easily drained and filled with new ideas by whoever happens to be leader. And this is not uncommon for Canadian political parties. The real outlier may be the Harris PCs, an unusual case of a party that developed a coherent and broadly rooted set of ideas in opposition along with a sophisticated plan of how to implement them in power. It remains a rarity in Canadian politics.