Toronto·Analysis

Ford government has uphill climb to win over the province, but it's not impossible

Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government has had a controversial first year in office, but voters may not remember it come election time

PCs wrap up another session and a tumultuous first year

Doug Ford's PC government instituted a dizzying array of changes in its first year in office. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Regardless of party stripes, it's tough to deny Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government pushed through an extremely aggressive agenda in its first year in office.

But the PCs are wrapping their first year quite a bit differently than they started — down in the opinion polls.

Many governments rip off that proverbial Band-Aid early on in their term, leaving room toward the end of their mandate to woo voters, whose memories are traditionally short, though the pace at which the Ford government did it was dizzying. 

"It's like drinking from a fire hose," said Ford at a news conference in early June when asked about his ambitious agenda.

'It's a lot of pressure'

"It's a lot of pressure."

After 15 years of Liberal rule, the PCs skipped the honeymoon period, and got straight to announcing the end of cap-and-trade, subsequently shuttering energy retrofit programs funded by its proceeds, rolling back OHIP+ and stopping the implementation of Liberal legislation to strengthen police oversight.

It's like drinking from a fire hose.- Premier Doug Ford

That was all less than a month after the election victory on June 7 last year.

A rare summer sitting saw the government announce a plan to repeal the modernized sex-ed curriculum, end a strike at York University and push Hydro One's CEO Mayo Schmidt out of the job, a promise Ford made during the election. 

"The government has moved at a relentless pace," said Aleem Kanji, strategist and vice-president of Sutherland Corporation, a firm based in Thornhill, Ont., that deals with municipal public affairs and government relations.

"I'm not sure anyone could have predicted this pace of change."

Aleem Kanji, VP at Sutherland Corp., says the PCs should take recent polling seriously. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

The changes inspired a steady stream of protests, including a campaign against the rollback of the sex-ed curriculum

Another decision that resulted in one of the most vicious fights all year was Ford cutting the size of Toronto city council by about half, and cancelling elections for four regional chairs.

None of that was mentioned during the election campaign, and some critics mused the former Toronto city councillor and failed mayoral candidate was pursuing a vendetta against his former colleagues. 

Ford did not back down. 

Reversing course

However, the government did backtrack on several decisions, which has some critics saying the PCs' policymaking was erratic and uninformed.

"I give them no credit whatsoever," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who accuses the government of "ramming items" through the Legislature.

"It should be much more collaborative and cooperative," she said in an interview with CBC News Tuesday. 

Amidst vocal opposition earlier this year, the Ford government scrapped a plan to open the Greenbelt to developers, a 7,200-square-kilometre swath of protected farmland, forest and watershed that surrounds the Golden Horseshoe. 

"The Ford government is really taking us backwards," said Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday. 

This spring, a plan to change autism services to get rid of a ballooning wait list saw multiple protests at the Legislature, with parents spilling onto the lawn at Queen's Park by the busloads.  

I give them no credit whatsoever.- NDP Leader Andrea Horwath

Following consultations, the sex ed curriculum wasn't as watered down as some expected. 

Toronto Police Supt. Ron Taverner, a Ford family friend, declined the position of OPP commissioner following media attention and public outcry. 

Most recently, the province walked back a series of retroactive cuts to municipalities that came out of the spring budget. Ford and his ministers dismissed accusations the announcement came on the heels of several polls showing a plunge in public support. 

"We're a government that listens," said Ford at the end of May. 

What Ford listened to was a ruckus largely made by municipal leaders across the province, like Ottawa mayor Jim Watson and Toronto's John Tory, who knocked on doors in PC MPPs' wards

Spending cuts

The downward spiral in the polls came on the heels of spending cuts that emerged following the government's first budget that touched everything from the tech sector to tree planting to public health and legal aid — seemingly drops in the bucket compared to the debt the province has accumulated.

Then, late Wednesday, the Ford government introduced legislation to cap public sector wages at one per cent a year for three years.

Although even some of the Ford government's smaller cuts were enough to anger a wide range of groups, some allies of the government say they represent only a small but vocal opposition. 

Ginny Roth, with Crestview Strategy, says the Ford government's low polling is merely a 'snapshot in time.' (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"I think a lot of the backlash comes from the vested interests that were benefiting from profligate spending at Queen's Park," said Ginny Roth, the lead for government relations practice at Crestview Strategy who previously worked as an organizer for the PC party.

She acknowledges there's a lot of anger on Twitter and the lawn of the legislature, but that attitude could start to change once "funding starts to flow" to municipalities and various government projects.  

"I don't think [that anger] necessarily reflects how people actually feel on the ground."

Discrepancies

But discrepancies are starting to emerge in some of the government's promises.

While Ford himself unveiled the first of 25 "Open for Business" signs at border crossings last November, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing three million companies, is warning introducing legislation to get out of a contract with The Beer Store without financial penalties risks sending a "negative signal ... about the business and investment climate in Ontario." 

But Finance Minister Vic Fedeli maintains the 10-year agreement that put beer and wine in grocery stores is a "sweetheart deal" for The Beer Store and needs to end. 

Standing ovations by PC MPPs are a regular part of question period. (Lisa Xing/CBC)
 

Ford also pledged to put more money in the pockets of taxpayers, but some point out it's also spending money to fight the federal carbon tax in court and a possible lawsuit from The Beer Store if legislation passes. 

The premier also promised no frontline jobs would be lost in the process of dealing with the deficit, but library staff, the Ontario Child Advocate (along with Environment Commissioner and French Language Services Commissioner) and 44 staff with the Ontario Telemedicine Network were laid off as a result of government decisions. 

Return to populism

While some dismiss early term polling as insignificant, it's worth noting it took the Ontario Liberals under former premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne 15 years to drop to the popularity levels Ford has seen in the last month. This could indicate the government has its work cut out for it.

"I think this government has to pay attention to the popularity," said Kanji. "The numbers are quite significant." 

But making a dent in a $11.7-billion deficit is no easy task, especially if you're a populist premier who just wants to help people, according to Melissa Lantsman, director of Ford's war room during the election and now a VP of public affairs at Hill and Knowlton Strategies.

She says voters can also be forgiving, especially since the premier has shown he can backtrack. 

"He's ready to square potential mistakes," she said. 

With that, expect a relatively quieter fall as the house doesn't sit again until Oct. 28, after the federal election, and watch for the more populist elements of a Ford premiership to emerge after that.

That doesn't necessarily mean more policies like beer in corner stores, tailgating or stores selling booze at 9 a.m. 

Expect more personal phone calls at night and neighbourhood barbecues as a way to remind the base of why it voted for Ford in the first place, starting with the annual Ford Fest later this month. 

About the Author

Lisa Xing is a journalist by trade and a historian by degree. She's also a creative writer, photographer and traveller, dabbling in camping, canoeing and crafting. Email Lisa.Xing@cbc.ca.

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