Six months after finding a path to victory, Doug Ford’s Tories are losing their way.
Every government stumbles early on. But it’s hard to recall a party in power that has fallen so far, so fast.
Our embattled premier is uniquely accursed because he is so often the author of his own misfortune. At year-end, Ford keeps running the ball into his own end zone — colliding with allies, trampling on teammates, fumbling at every turn, blinded by hubris.
Emboldened by a landslide victory, Ford imagined himself an all-powerful disrupter who could demolish the Liberal legacy in a flurry of pronouncements. But slogans are no substitute for strategies.
To this day, Ford’s greatest weakness is that he imagines himself powerful enough to defy reality, the laws of political gravity, even the laws of the land: defying Ottawa on carbon pricing; defying Toronto on the size of city council; demonizing the courts when they ruled against him; dismissing Charter rights when threatening to override them; defying corporate governance by firing top executives of government-controlled companies; alienating Francophones by undermining minority language protections; and disrespecting the police by interfering with their independence.
For no premier before him had ever rebranded his or her mobile phone number as a kind of public trust, as if proving a special bond with the people. Just call me (or text me) — anyone, anytime.
The myth of the mobile link may be popular for those prone to the personal touch — provided you don’t do the math for all 13 million Ontarians with access to a phone. Equally, the promise of roadside signs declaring “Ontario is open for business” has a certain visual and rhetorical appeal — provided you don’t do the math for businesses deciding on multibillion-dollar investments.
“My friends, a new day will dawn in Ontario,” Ford pledged solemnly at his swearing-in ceremony on the eve of Canada Day.
“You have trusted us to keep our word, to work tirelessly every day on your behalf with integrity and transparency.”
Today, those early promises have been held hostage to hyperbole:
- Disturbing news reports about political interference by the premier’s office in the upper echelons of policing in this province have sparked an independent inquiry, forcing the premier to (temporarily) backtrack on a brazen attempt to install an underqualified crony, Ron Taverner, as Ontario Provincial Police commissioner. The Star also detailed how Ford’s chief of staff, Dean French, demanded that police arrest outlaw cannabis retailers and parade them “in handcuffs” as a publicity stunt.
- Ford’s capricious decision to downsize Toronto’s city council in the middle of a municipal election was not only unprecedented, but went unmentioned in his own provincial election campaign. The subsequent court battle brought out the worst in the premier, who trash-talked our independent judiciary and tried to rewrite the history of our written constitution.
- The premier’s impetuous plan to reduce French-language protections for Ontario’s francophone minority placed his government in double jeopardy — unable to account for any specific savings, while foolishly trying to put a price on language rights that are part of our history.
- The sacking of Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt — dubbed the “Six Million Dollar Man” by the Tories on the campaign trail — ended up costing the government-controlled company more than $150 million in unforeseen fees when the province’s meddling prompted U.S. regulators to scotch a planned takeover bid of an American utility.
- The Tories’ environmental policies have been poisoned by the political environment. By dismantling Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, and disavowing carbon pricing in any form, Ford is spoiling for a futile court fight with the federal government, which has every legal right to impose a national carbon tax as a backstop. In his most peculiar pronouncement to date, the premier boasts about wasting more than $30 million in taxpayer funds on lawyers waging political war in a legal setting.
In all these areas, the common theme is defiance and disruption, with little to replace the destruction — beyond roadside signs and bumper stickers. It is a road map for more U-turns, more climbdowns, more own-goals, more about-faces, more losing face.
If Ford doesn’t slow down, take stock, learn lessons, and change course, he is destined to sink even further. The challenge is not so much ideology as competency — and personality.
Perhaps the premier imagined himself in a bowling alley, where hurling a ball brings the pins crashing down — only to be righted again, automatically and reliably, by the mysterious machinery behind the walls. In reality, the machinery of government is not quite so predictable, and the province not so indestructible.
Years ago, politicians could act out such fantasies by lacing up their bowling shoes and padding down to a bowling alley hidden in the basement of Queen’s Park. But the bowling alley closed long ago, and the people of this province are not a set of pins so easily set right again.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn