What is the Ford government? That’s not a rhetorical question.
We’ll come back to it in a moment. But first, here’s an easier query: Why is the Ford government?
Doug Ford is Premier of Ontario because, after 15 years of Liberal administration, the Grits were so low in the polls that any random Progressive Conservative leader would have won the election. And a random leader did.
Thanks to an improbable series of mishaps, the PCs ended up being led to inevitable triumph not by Patrick Brown, who had a serious platform but self-destructed at the last minute, nor by Christine Elliott, whom the party’s MPPs would have selected and whom the largest number of PC members voted for, but by Mr. Ford – Ontario’s least qualified, least prepared, least interested Premier.
To make things worse, Mr. Ford came into office at a time when the tradition of cabinet government is on the outs and extreme centralization is the norm – centralized in the office of that least qualified, least prepared, least interested Premier.
But wait, there’s more: The Premier’s office was, until late last week, run by a chief of staff, Dean French, who was as ill-prepared as Mr. Ford, but unfortunately far more interested and engaged.
The result has been a year of chaos. Much of it has surprised even its authors. Their surprise is surprising.
Covering the Ford government has been like watching people give tightrope walking a try without a net. Or student interns have a go at surgery on the first day of school – because how hard can that be? Or discovering that a group of talk-radio callers, after winning some kind of contest, is now in control of a $150-billion-a-year government. These might make for successful reality TV shows, but it’s not much of a governing philosophy.
Speaking of philosophy, let’s go back to the opening question: What is the Ford government?
What does it believe in? Why, other than the sheer joy of sticking it to the left, does it want to govern?
Mr. Ford’s detractors call him a populist. So do supporters. Nobody knows what that means, the government included.
For example, it came into office determined to convince people that Ontario is in a death-spiral fiscal crisis. It worked to make the hole look as big as possible through revenue reductions, unfavourable accounting changes and steady rhetorical digging. It sounded like 1990s neo-conservatism.
But in its first budget this spring, the Ford government’s pitch was austerity-lite, with spending only slightly more constrained than under the Liberals, and promised cuts nowhere near as deep as the Mike Harris era. Message: We’re progressive Progressive Conservatives.
However, both before and after the budget, the government repeatedly hit Ontarians with surprise policy changes and cuts, undermining the government’s popularity and any sense of its competency.
It started with the closing of the province’s Office of the French Language Services Commissioner, a move designed to alienate hundreds of thousands of voters, for a savings of, at most, a few thousand dollars.
Like a politically tone-deaf conductor in an orchestra pit, the government kept signalling moves that dismayed not just the audience, but also the musicians – the cabinet ministers – under its direction.
For example, when the government revealed plans to slash funding for municipalities, Toronto was able to say exactly how many tens of millions of dollars it stood to lose, and from what services. Queen’s Park, in contrast, had trouble coming up with figures or defending its policy.
It named an underqualified, over-age friend of Mr. Ford as chief of the provincial police. It named a 26-year-old pal of Mr. French’s sons as Ontario’s representative in New York.
Time and again, the Ford government would author a crisis, and then be unable to explain the what, why or wherefore – because it was implementing something it hadn’t quite finished writing. Ready, fire, aim.
There are serious and competent people in the Ford government – among its MPPs and in the permanent bureaucracy. If cabinet government makes a return, much is possible. This is not an administration that has to end in total failure – the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, think clearly or speak honestly. But that’s sure what the first year felt like.