Doug Ford 2.0 tones down the tough talk. Too bad he’s still tone deaf

Doug Ford 2.0 tones down the tough talk. Too bad he’s still tone deaf

Doug Ford 2.0 is here. Is it any better than the original?

The premier has walked back some of his most controversial policies, but most remain in place.

He has toned down his tough talk, but still comes across as tone deaf.

Ford is now more civil with the opposition, and sometimes even circumspect with the media.

Can the premier pull off the feat of moderating his policies and modulating his personality, or is it too early to tell? Here’s a better question:

Is it too late to undo the damage and reverse the negatives already baked in with voters?

Riding high in his first year, flush with his first taste of power, Ford told his fellow Tories that he owed nobody nothing. Persuading himself that he alone had won the day (nothing to do with his unpopular predecessor and unelectable rivals), he proclaimed himself premier of “Ontario’s First Government For the People.”

On cue and utterly cowed, his caucus leapt to its feet for a dozen standing ovations daily, obediently and loudly.

But beyond the legislature’s protective bubble, in the real world of Raptors celebrations and other public appearances, Ford was booed repeatedly and lustily.

Where did the fan crush go, and can it ever come back (or was it ever real)? By all accounts, Ford was personally crushed by the open hostility, quietly sheltering in the witness protection program for unpopular premiers (taking the place of his predecessor Kathleen Wynne).

His scheduling team proactively and protectively kept him away from potentially iffy encounters, less he be dissed and hissed yet again. For a retail politician who revels in ovations, a recurring chorus of public boos was personally painful, as Ford confided to allies.

Any doubts that Ford’s Tories were in trouble vanished on Oct. 21, when the federal election results showed their Conservative cousins vanquished on the vital Ontario battleground: The federal Liberals elected 79 MPs in this province, compared to only 36 for the Tories, thanks to a campaign that played up Ford’s dismal track record.

An unpopular populist is an oxymoron. Austerity and unpopularity often go hand in hand.

Ford’s first instinct? He fired his finance minister, Vic Fedeli, a mere 10 weeks after he unveiled the first Progressive Conservative budget that turned into the death of a thousand cuts.

In fact, the premier’s public enthusiasm for harsh program cuts had already started to wane in private, even before the spring budget was unveiled. But Fedeli perhaps never got the memo (or failed to read the tea leaves), and paid the price as Ford suffered a decline in his personal popularity.

The new finance minister, Rod Phillips, has righted a listing ship. But he hasn’t yet refloated Ford, whose ratings are still sinking.

Next, another man overboard: Ford dumped his chief of staff and longtime soul mate, Dean French, blaming him for patronage appointments that ranged from partisan pigginess to laughable cronyism and indefensible nepotism.

French reinforced Ford’s worst instincts, and vice versa. In the aftermath, many of the most controversial and disruptive goals of this now disbanded tag team have been quietly reversed, reduced, or reconsidered:

Cuts to health and social services have been partly delayed; a controversial autism strategy is being reviewed; a questionable sex-education downgrade was reduced to a minor update; the obsession with beer sales in corner stores (and a costly court battle with the major brewers for ignoring a signed contract) has been dialed down; a major increase in class sizes is being partly reconsidered; a regional government revamp has been cancelled; and an ambitious uploading of TTC subway lines has been suspended.

Without French goading him, Ford realized in the middle of last month’s federal campaign that he had to compromise in order to avoid a school strike by CUPE support staff. But will he have the good sense in the weeks ahead to find the middle ground with the other major teachers’ unions?

Ahead of the negotiations, Ford dismissed the elected leaders of Ontario’s teachers’ unions as “thugs,” accusing them of manipulating students who protested against his unpopular plan to increase class sizes and remove funding for 10,000 teaching positions. This month, Ford’s government passed into law a one per cent ceiling on pay hikes, setting the stage for confrontation with high school teachers who are seeking only inflation protection this time.

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The premier may have changed his tone, but his tactics are still proving provocative. His alter ego, French, is long gone, but Ford isn’t going anywhere for now.

At least not yet. As the ruling Liberals learned the hard way last year, once people turn on you, they tend to tune you out — and vote you out.

Increasingly at Queen’s Park, the question isn’t how long until the premier recovers the lost ground, but how long until he runs out of room? Doug Ford 2.0 is here, but new releases of the same old program only take you so far — until people demand it be replaced and redesigned from the ground up.

Martin Regg Cohn

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