How Ontario’s doctors lost faith in Doug Ford — and each other

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How Ontario’s doctors lost faith in Doug Ford — and each other


Ontario doctors are mad.

Mad at the last Liberal government.

Mad at the present Progressive Conservative government.

Mad at the Ontario Medical Association.

Mad at their fellow doctors.

Mad at themselves.

Or mad at all of the above.

Doctors do God’s work looking after patients. But they have not been looking after themselves on the labour front of late, which is most maddening of all.

After going for years without a contract, many MDs grew to hate the Liberals in power, prompting the membership to reject a 2016 agreement negotiated by their OMA leaders at the time. Dissident doctors pined for a Progressive Conservative government that promised a good-faith negotiation — with arbitration if necessary.

“The Liberals created a toxic relationship with our doctors by making unilateral decisions,” the premier’s spokesperson declared after the Tories took power. “Doug Ford is committed to respecting Ontario’s physicians and fixing the relationship.”

Be careful what you wish for. Hoping for healing is not enough.

The Tories took Ontario’s doctors for a wild ride this week. Despite Ford’s personal promise to respect physicians and protect the process, the premier’s office pulled the plug: It would no longer be legally bound by binding arbitration. A lawyer’s letter abruptly declared the process dead and buried. The government tried to dismiss its own appointee to the three-member arbitration panel the next day.

Just like that. Promise made, promise broken.

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The OMA exploded. Doctors went ballistic. Labour lawyers were apoplectic, accusing the government of not only losing its way but flouting the law.

Both sides are prone to grandstanding in labour negotiations, walking away from the bargaining table or unleashing ultimatums. But aborting arbitration, after agreeing to abide by it, is not part of the playbook if it violates a formally agreed legal framework.

The Tories’ self-serving explanation was that the OMA is now riven by divisions, and could no longer be counted upon to deliver its members if they ever reached a deal. In short, the government declared non-confidence in its bargaining opponent.

As outlandish as that assertion might be in law, it is not outrageous in reality. For it is a fact that the OMA, in a previous incarnation, reached a tentative agreement two years ago with the previous Liberal government, only to fumble the ball.

It was a compromise, as all negotiations are. But the OMA executive, having sealed the deal, couldn’t sell the deal to its members — in short, it couldn’t deliver.

Dissident doctors, led by the best-paid specialists (who resisted taking a haircut so that lower-paid general practitioners could catch up), whipped up opposition to the deal. They won the vote, defeated the deal, and ousted the OMA’s old leadership on the promise of getting a better bargain after the next election.

While the doctors were playing tough, another group of professionals took a different tack: Ontario’s teachers’ unions, who are no slouches in contract negotiations, opted to take the best deal they could get from then-premier Kathleen Wynne, who wanted to avoid pre-election labour strife.

Teachers took the money and ran — before time ran out on the election clock, and before the province’s fiscal situation deteriorated. Doctors, by contrast, rejected their own deal, rebelled against their own organization, and turned against each other.

A civil war among physicians has culminated in a secession attempt by highly paid specialists who want to create the “Ontario Specialists Association,” or OSA, to rival the OMA. The latest round of internal warfare provided the pretext for the government to opt out of binding arbitration — escalating the conflict to a nuclear war.

The stakes are high for doctors and patients, politicians and taxpayers. MDs get more than $12 billion a year — roughly 10 per cent of the annual budget at a time when the Tories are retrenching.

Having accused the Liberals of fostering a “toxic relationship,” Ford has personally poisoned the well by going back on his word. Perhaps the premier could not resist exploiting the weakness of a faction-ridden OMA — an organization that never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity with the Liberals, reposing its faith in Ford for a panacea on pay.

By week’s end, the Tories had done another U-turn. Facing ferocious pressure from doctors, or perhaps a second opinion from their lawyers, the government undid its ultimatum — and agreed to arbitration again.

Just like that. Promise made, promise broken, promise remade.

No doubt doctors are hoping for healing again. But we should all have learned by now to be careful what we wish for.

Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn





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