Doug Ford is suddenly the most popular man in Ontario. It’s a big change from last year, when one poll showed 69 per cent of voters disapproved of the Progressive Conservative Premier. He was booed at the Toronto Raptors victory parade in June; a month earlier he’d been booed at, of all things, the Special Olympics.
But in mid-March, that all changed. Even people on the left were suddenly praising him.
When Mr. Ford ordered a swift shutdown of the province, his law and order instincts, and his plain language, caught the public mood. So did calling those protesting physical-distancing rules “a bunch of yahoos.” And then there have been his daily press conferences, at which he has, time and again, urged an increase in the province’s COVID-19 testing.
If Dalton McGuinty was the kindly “Premier Dad” of a less anxious era, then Mr. Ford is Tough Love Dad. Right about now, people find Tough Love Dad to be reassuring.
If Justin Trudeau’s preferred emotional channel is empathy, then Mr. Ford’s is anger and frustration.
When testing numbers lagged, he said nobody was “screaming louder than I was.” To push public-health authorities, he said he’d “be like an 800 pound gorilla on their backs.” When a dipping count of COVID-19 cases reversed in late May, he said he was “watching the trends like a hawk.” When soldiers sent to long-term care homes revealed their appalling state, he said he would “move heaven and earth to leave no stone unturned.”
It’s perhaps worth remembering that he’s actually the head of the government, this thing he’s publicly hectoring. He’s supposed to be working with it and through it. He’s the conductor of this orchestra, not the music critic.
But when he urged everyone who was at Trinity Bellwoods Park last weekend to immediately get tested, it was clear that he had not consulted the members of his orchestra, a.k.a. the province’s health experts. They had no choice but to admit that what he was calling for made no sense.
The present crisis has been a reminder of many things. One of them is that government matters, and it’s hard. And government isn’t the same as politics. The latter is a sales job; the former is engineering. Anyone can sell you a bridge. Building one that won’t fall down and kill people is a science.
Managing a giant organization with a budget of nearly $200-billion is about a lot boring organizational stuff that happens off-stage. It’s about patient actions, usually over long periods of time, including how much to spend, and where. It’s about more than the leader’s willpower.
Mr. Ford’s late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, was famous for urging constituents to call him up to personally attend to their problems – blocked drain, pothole in the road, whatever. The smaller the better. Rob would then call those lazy bureaucrats and order them to get off their backsides and get ’er done.
While it might have been a fine way to run a feudal village, it’s no way to manage the allocation of services for millions of people. Getting that done, millions of times over, calls for the kind of egghead stuff that the prepandemic Doug Ford made it his brand to disdain.
That government is a good and necessary thing was not Mr. Ford’s operating assumption when he arrived in power. He once said that “there is this entitlement that the taxpayers owe the government a living,” as if taxes had nothing to do with services – like, say, public-health agencies, whose budgets he cut.
Mr. Ford’s sudden popularity comes from his promise to fix all that’s broken, but there has to be something troubling about the fact that, two and half months after the pandemic started, the Ford government still hasn’t figured out how to organize its own physically distanced television briefings.
The members of Team Ford do not sit at a long table, like other governments, but instead stand at attention, awkwardly, behind a single lectern, occupied by Mr. Ford. When a question is asked of someone other than the Premier, an uncomfortable dance begins, with the person in front of the microphone back-peddling in a careful retreat, as a minister from the back row steps gingerly forward.
On Tuesday, as Mr. Ford responded to the military report on conditions in nursing homes, the Queen’s Park legislative bells were ringing loudly. The Premier kept on talking, undaunted. But one had to wonder why nobody in his government had thought to plan for this.
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