Doug Ford's 'government that listens' is hearing the polls
Sustained campaign by mayors, daily coverage of budget cuts whittled away at PC popularity
Premier Doug Ford wants you to believe that his decision to postpone municipal budget cuts had absolutely nothing to do with successive polls showing a sharp drop in voter support for his party.
Ford insists he made his about-face because he heard loudly and clearly from mayors across the province
"They need more time," he told a news conference Monday. "We're a government that listens."
There's no doubt the mayors' argument resonated at Queen's Park, simply because it was rather reasonable: that it was completely unfair for the province to cut municipal funding for 2019 when cities were already part-way through their budgets for the year.
The sustained public-relations offensive from Toronto Mayor John Tory can't help but have contributed to Ford's polling numbers. The man who beat Ford in the 2014 mayoral race was also beating Ford in the realm of public opinion over budget 2019.
Tory's tactics to keep the story alive included distributing leaflets to voters in PC-held ridings, gathering signatures on a petition and holding a news conference at a city-run daycare.
Tory's conservative credentials as a former PC leader meant that Ford could not dismiss his critique as mere ideology.
Meanwhile, the somewhat opaque nature of the Ford government's budget cuts meant that new cuts were being exposed in the news media on a near-daily basis. In the six weeks since the budget, the PCs have rarely had a "winning" day where the main story out of Queen's Park was what they would consider good news.
It all whittled away at PC popularity, resulting in a succession of polls all putting Ford below the 30 per cent mark. Ford brushed off questions about whether the polls factored into his move.
"I've been up in the polls. I've been down in the polls. I've been back up in the polls," Ford replied. "The only poll that's going to count is the one in four years." (For accuracy's sake: it's actually just three years until Ford has to face the voters again in June 2022.)
Pollster John Corbett isn't buying Ford's claim of indifference.
"Of course they're motivated by polls, and in this case the polls were a cascade," said Corbett, who runs a Toronto-based communications and polling firm.
"I expected a trough in public opinion polling for the Ford government in the first two years," said Jason Lietaer, a former adviser to both the Ontario PCs and the federal Conservatives, now with the public affairs firm Enterprise Canada.
"When you do difficult things you're always going to be less popular."
Lietaer says Ford deserves more credit than he's getting for his willingness to alter course.
"Governments make mistakes, they make them all the time. You don't often see the leader of the government come out and say, 'We've got to do it a different way.'"
The move could be seen as the latest evidence that Ford is not as stubborn as his opponents paint him, that he is willing to change his mind on policy.
His government backed off on proposed changes that would have loosened the rules for development in the Greenbelt around the GTA. His government is consulting on its controversial changes to the Ontario Autism Program.
Ford's critics, however, question the premier's claim that his is a government that listens.
"They were beaten soundly and roundly in the press and by public opinion," said Corbett.
"They don't talk to people first about these ideas. They just declare them and then they just discover to their chagrin that they are not popular. I don't think you can call that a listening government."
Horwath says process 'completely backwards'
Ford is doing the opposite of listening, said NDP leader Andrea Horwath.
"This is a government that acts and then gets backlash, and then pulls back and decides to listen," Horwath told reporters at Queen's Park on Monday. "They're going about it completely backwards."
Ford's move only does away with the funding cuts this year. The municipalities are on notice that they need to find ways to trim their budgets next year.
But postponing these particular cuts, and potentially dampening the outcry, Ford may have done a favour for his federal political cousins. Both the federal Conservatives and Liberals have seen evidence in their polling that Ford's budget cuts were to some extent dragging down Andrew Scheer's party in Ontario.
While the actions of the Ford government this spring might have an impact on Scheer's polling numbers right now, Justin Trudeau's Liberals would be taking a big risk to assume that provincial issues will be a truly decisive factor for voters in the federal election this fall.