The big questions Doug Ford will have to answer in 2019

This time last year nobody was predicting Doug Ford would become Ontario premier in 2018, so accurately predicting what will happen in provincial politics in 2019 can't possibly be as difficult. Can it?

Ontario's premier aims to be a key force in defeating Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals this year

Much of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's political focus in 2019 will be on helping the federal Conservatives defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

This time last year nobody was predicting Doug Ford would become Ontario's premier in 2018, so accurately predicting what will happen in provincial politics in 2019 can't possibly be as difficult.

Can it? 

Not being blessed with a crystal ball, and knowing that Ford did several unexpected things in his first six months in power, I will refrain from predicting exactly what he will do this year. Instead, I'll pose the questions that Ford will have to answer as 2019 unfurls. These themes will frame much of Ontario's politics this year.

1. Can Ford help defeat Trudeau?

Ford says frequently that beating Kathleen Wynne was just the first step, and beating Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals is up next. Ford will undoubtedly play a key role in a growing coalition of conservative premiers who intend to stir up anti-Trudeau sentiment in their provinces to the benefit of Andrew Scheer's Conservative Party of Canada. 

Ford's hope is to help Scheer's party take the Ontario swing ridings that carried the PCs to power provincially, particularly the 905. Ford has explicitly attacked Trudeau on such issues as carbon pricing, steel tariffs, and asylum seekers, Expect that much of Ford's politicking in 2019 will take the form of swipes at Trudeau. 

2. How deeply will the PCs cut the deficit? 

Ford and Finance Minister Vic Fedeli say the Liberals left the province $15 billion in the red. Fedeli's mini-budget in November took a mini bite out of the shortfall, now clocking the 2018-19 deficit at $14.5 billion. The cuts were not as deep as some Ford opponents feared they would be, but it left them asking: how much deeper will the cuts be this year?

The answer will come whenever the PCs deliver their first budget, sometime in the next few months. Ford has set himself an onerous task: promising to balance the budget without layoffs. It's left the government trying to find savings by trimming around the edges: cutting landline phones at Queen's Park, reducing the use of paper, offering early retirement buyouts to provincial employees, none of which can add up to the billions that the PCs need to find.

The budget will force the PCs to answer one financial question they have been refusing to answer since before they were elected: when do they aim to get rid of the deficit? By law, every deficit budget must show a timetable for getting out of the red. 

3. What will Ford's health care reform look like?

In a memo this week to Ontario's 60,000 public servants, Ford identified "delivering better health care" as one of his three top priorities. He said this will involve "embracing change and innovation, deploying technology more effectively, and committing to new models of collaboration and patient care." 

People who work in Ontario's health care system are wondering what those words will mean in practice. 

Ford says delivering better health care is one of his three top priorities in 2019, along with jobs and balancing the budget responsibly. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It's also not totally clear who will be the architect of Ford's health care reform. Health Minister Christine Elliott is officially in charge and has delivered speeches about transforming the system. But sources in the bureaucracy say the driving force for change is Rueben Devlin, former CEO of Humber River Hospital, who chairs the Premier's Council on Improving Healthcare and Ending Hallway Medicine.

It's not a stretch to say that unless Devlin and Elliott find ways to spend the province's $61.7 billion health budget more efficiently, it will be all but impossible for Ford to balance the budget without layoffs (see question 2). 

4. Will hydro rates come down?

One of the PCs' key election promises was an additional 12 per cent cut in the cost of electricity for residential and small business customers. The party platform said this would cost in the neighbourhood of $800 million a year. About half of that would come from the government's Hydro One share dividends, and half from the tax base.

But again, refer back to question 2. Keeping the hydro rate promise by spending $800 million a year will not make it any easier to keep the promise to balance the budget.

Ford frequently says he has an all-star cabinet, but some of his ministers, including Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, left, have taken a back seat to Ford on key issues in their portfolios. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

5. Will Ford's style of governing change? 

The PCs did things at a frantic pace in their first 100 days in power, and they didn't take their foot off the gas until the Christmas break.

Ford has fulfilled some of his central campaign promises: cancelling cap and trade, scrapping the Liberal sex-ed curriculum, getting rid of the Hydro One CEO and board. So, will he settle into the more sedate pace of having a majority government. Or, after 15 years of Liberals running Ontario, does Ford feel he has so many changes to make, that he cannot slow down?

In the same vein, how will Ford handle the inevitable bumps along the way? His appointment of his friend Ron Taverner to head the OPP is on hold pending an investigation. His move on the sex-ed curriculum is being challenged in court. And no one can predict what other controversies will emerge in the months to come.

Ford had a tremendous 2018, winning all his big battles: the PC leadership, the election campaign, the legal fight over slashing Toronto city council. A significant test of his mettle as a politician will come if he loses a big battle in 2019.


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