One of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s favourite slogans – and Mr. Ford loves slogans as only a literal label-maker can – is “Open For Business.”
The Premier has inserted the phrase into his ministers’ talking points, printed it on two dozen signs placed near border crossings, and even named a piece of legislation after it – the Making Ontario Open for Business Act.
But Mr. Ford has a habit of acting in ways that eviscerate his favourite mantra. His impulsive, highly personal style of decision-making is just the sort of thing that repels investors. Rather than putting up placards, he should try showing the world that Ontario is run by a cool head, according to clear rules. You know, conservatism.
We are already beginning to see the consequences of Mr. Ford’s tinpot approach to government. Last week, a Washington state regulator killed Hydro One’s bid to buy the U.S. energy company Avista Corp. over concerns about the Premier’s meddling in Hydro’s affairs.
Those concerns are well founded. This summer, Mr. Ford forced out the utility’s CEO, Mayo Schmidt, as a populist sop over Mr. Schmidt’s $6.2-million pay packet; that in turn triggered the resignation of the firm’s entire board. Now, the Premier and his chief of staff are reportedly at odds with the new board over whom to hire as chief executive, with Mr. Ford favouring the head of Toronto Hydro because the two have worked together before.
Not only does the $4.4-billion Avista deal look to be dead, its dissolution would cost Hydro One close to $200-million in fees and commissions. The Premier’s costly intervention is all the more remarkable when you remember that Hydro is only 47-per-cent owned by the province. Mr. Ford has cost not only ratepayers, but shareholders, too.
The green-energy sector might also have something to say about the Premier’s interpretation of “Open For Business.” It has been smarting ever since the Progressive Conservative government cancelled more than 750 renewable-energy contracts this summer in an effort to drive down electricity bills, while swatting away compensation claims. Reforming the Liberal’s terrible energy policy is one thing, but the wholesale shredding of hundreds of contracts hurts companies and chills the business climate.
Tesla didn’t feel Ontario was open for its business earlier this year either, when it successfully sued the province for phasing out electric-car rebates in a way that discriminated against the firm. For an ostensibly pro-business Premier, Mr. Ford has spent a rather large part of his short time in office being sued, spurned and derided by, well, businesses.
That’s not because he has a principled aversion to corporate welfare either – at least not for firms with ties to him and his party. Maple Leaf Foods, the recipient of $34.5-million in provincial largesse for a poultry-processing plant in London, Ont., last month, is a long-time client of Mr. Ford’s family company, Deco Labels.
There is no proof of anything illegal in that bit of industrial policy, but the optics aren’t good and risk feeding a perception that Ontario is open for business above all if you’re a Ford ally. That’s poison for companies operating in Ontario, who inevitably want to make sure the rules of the game are the same for everyone, and won’t suddenly change.
Enter Ron Taverner, Mr. Ford’s long-time family friend and choice to head the Ontario Provincial Police. On Tuesday, OPP Deputy Commissioner Brad Blair, the interim chief of the force, asked the provincial Ombudsman to investigate the many irregularities in the process for selecting a new top cop at the OPP. Deputy Commissioner Blair added to the growing list of questionable government actions, alleging that Mr. Ford’s office asked police to purchase “a large camper type vehicle” for the Premier’s use, without public tender, and off the books.
Alleging political interference with policing, conflict of interest and possibly law-breaking, Deputy Commissioner Blair has hired a lawyer and effectively become a whistleblower against the sitting government.
This is unprecedented and it’s the latest situation that leaves Ontario looking like a banana republic. The implications are ominous for the province’s economy. Companies rely on the integrity of contracts, freedom from government meddling and the rule of law. If Mr. Ford truly wants to make Ontario open for business, he should try a few of those ideas on for size.