It’s not a known side effect of COVID-19, but when the pandemic hit, Ontario Premier Doug Ford abruptly transformed into Canada’s most empathetic politician.
Mention Kathleen Wynne, former Liberal premier and former lead conservative bogeywoman, and Mr. Ford will praise her decency. Federal Liberal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland? His best friend. Teachers? He can’t say enough about what an outstanding job they’re doing. Asked Wednesday why he’s declined the request of Toronto’s top doctor to shut down indoor dining, he pivoted to praising Dr. Eileen de Villa for being smart, dedicated and “a really good person – she really is.”
Yes, it’s great to have an Ontario premier who makes nice with the federal government, often meets criticisms with compliments and who can’t stop dishing out encouraging words. Honey always goes down better than vinegar.
And for all that, the Ford government is botching the job, badly. It has to change course, and quickly. It has to change the advice it’s getting, and the advice it’s giving Ontarians. And to do that, it has to change personnel.
Government is about more than expressing empathy. It’s about overseeing a huge bureaucratic machinery, making the right decisions, being organized enough to execute on them, and clearly communicating the what, how and why. Empathy in the midst of failure is nice. Competence to prevent failure is better.
Yes, when it comes to handling COVID-19, Ontario isn’t doing as badly as Quebec. That’s a very low bar. Quebec still has the second-highest death rate in the developed world. But Ontario’s case numbers are, right now, heading in the wrong direction, and at high speed. The Ford government’s response has been both confusing and ineffective.
It often appears to be unaware of what is going on, or what it is doing about it. For example, the question of whether people should forgo Thanksgiving family gatherings turned into a skill-testing game earlier this week, with ministers, officials and the Premier unable to provide a straight answer. It was like Family Feud, except with only one team. And they still lost.
Meanwhile, the province’s system for testing and contact tracing broke down last month, with people waiting days to get a test, labs taking days to turn around results, and contact tracing becoming so delayed as to be pointless. The province moved to end lineups by restricting who could get tested, and forcing people to book appointments in advance. Testing centres now have long virtual lines. Better optics, not better results.
Mr. Ford always says that he’s just following the advice of his secretive, mythical “command table,” and that of the province’s Chief Medical Officer, the strangely passive Dr. David Williams. In fact, the Premier has put himself front and centre at almost every news conference, giving the impression that he’s making all the public-health decisions. It feels as if he thinks leadership means being not just premier, but health minister and chief doctor, too.
Mr. Ford can’t fire himself. But he can remake his team.
First, Mr. Ford needs to copy the Premier of British Columbia, John Horgan. Mr. Horgan hardly ever appears at pandemic news conferences. He’s left the file to the Health Minister, and the Health Minister has extensively delegated to a most capable provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. The results speak for themselves. Mr. Horgan is likely to be re-elected later this month.
And if B.C.'s results had not been good? Mr. Horgan could have replaced the people he’d entrusted with the file. And that’s the second thing Mr. Ford needs to do: replace the leads on this file, starting with Dr. Williams. He is clearly out of his depth, and he has to go. He may have loyalty to the Premier and the Premier to him, but their codependency is a case of the blind leading the blind, and the province falling into the ditch.
Ontario’s Premier needs someone who will give him the right advice, and give it to him straight. He also needs someone who will stand up to him, and who will – for the sake of their own reputation – resign if he won’t listen. In traditional, old-school cabinet government, a premier would empower a minister and her bureaucracy, and then stand back and let them get the job done. If they failed, he’d shuffle the minister, replace the experts, and try again. That’s what Mr. Ford needs to do now.
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