In the wake of discouraging polls and unhappy with the rollout of the provincial budget, Premier Doug Ford is poised to shuffle his cabinet.
The premier is expected to shake up his executive council after seven public-opinion surveys in the past month have highlighted problems for the Progressive Conservative government due to program cuts in the budget.
One senior Tory insider, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, said Ford is eager to “reset” his administration, which was sworn in last June 29 after toppling Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals.
“Doug knows it’s time to make some changes,” the official said.
Conservative sources told the Star that Ford is also deeply concerned about tensions in his office after tearful and impassioned complaints last week from Tory MPPs about his powerful chief of staff Dean French.
“MPPs should be treated with respect,” the premier told his caucus in an emotional closed-door meeting Friday at an airport hotel, according to several people in attendance.
Aides, including French, were not present in the room.
It came after a Greater Toronto Area MPP and a Toronto member personally appealed to Ford to rein in his chief of staff.
Sources says the rookie suburban MPP broke down in tears after being scolded by French outside the airport hotel on Thursday in front of the premier, other MPPs, and staffers.
“She couldn’t stop crying,” said a PC source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After French went back inside the hotel — and as the suburban member continued to weep — the Toronto MPP explained to Ford that Tories feel like they are living in the former Soviet Union with secret police monitoring their every move.
“There’s a culture of fear — it’s like the KGB,” the premier was reportedly told by the MPP.
The Toronto member emphasized to Ford that MPPs are afraid to speak out in case they are ejected from caucus like veteran Randy Hillier was in March.
“MPPs are treated as if (they’re) lower than the staff,” said a Tory source.
Ford was visibly affected by the outburst.
The next day he vowed to his caucus that they would be treated with greater respect.
Ford, who is well-regarded by PC MPPs even though his gatekeepers prevent them from gaining much personal access to him, was given a standing ovation in the backroom gathering.
In contrast to the perfunctory ovations by MPPs during the legislature’s daily question period, which are closely monitored by some in the premier’s office to apparently root out potential dissenters, it was a heartfelt display.
Laryssa Waler, the premier’s executive director of communications, confirmed the incident between French and the suburban MPP.
“Last week, following a caucus meeting, a member expressed that she felt she was singled out for voicing her opinion,” Waler said Wednesday.
“This misunderstanding was regrettable, given both the premier and his chief of staff have an open-door policy and hold the strong belief that all members of caucus should be encouraged to share their thoughts with them and the caucus at any time,” she said.
“Subsequent to that meeting, the premier’s chief of staff spoke again with the member, he apologized and they had an excellent conversation.”
The internal strife comes as Ford wants to hit refresh on his 1-year-old government.
Sources said the premier was “disappointed” with how Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s April 11 budget has rolled out.
Despite record spending of $163.4 billion — $4.9 billion more than Wynne’s final budget last year — media coverage of the fiscal blueprint has been dominated by program cuts.
“It really is the death by a thousand cuts,” confided another senior Tory, questioning why there wasn’t a chapter in Fedeli’s budget papers outlining all of the changes.
“We needed to get all that stuff out there at the same time … instead of it just dribbling out,” said the Ford loyalist, noting school boards and other agencies that receive provincial transfer payments have effectively defined the budget.
“It’s a good budget that protects what matters most with more investments in health care and education. But that’s not how it’s being viewed,” added the Tory.
The premier is reportedly much more impressed with the recent unveiling of Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy’s austerity push.
Bethlenfalvy announced last Wednesday that most public-service wage settlements would be limited to 1 per cent annual increases for the next three years.
Ford signalled to his caucus last week that he wants a change in tone.
“I’m tired of the fighting and I’m tired of things being so adversarial,” he told them.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie