Why Doug Ford's cabinet shuffle won't solve his problems
Ontario premier unapologetic over budget after extraordinary move to dump finance minister
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is showing no signs of changing the direction of his government, despite demoting his finance minister barely two months after his first budget.
Ford struck an unapologetic tone in his news conference Thursday, refusing to admit to any shortcomings in his budget beyond saying his government could have done a better job communicating it.
"Our priorities will never change," Ford declared, suggesting that he believes he is on the right track.
However, turfing your finance minister after just one budget is basically unheard of in Canadian provincial or federal politics. CBC research librarians can't find an example of it happening anytime in the past two decades.
So Ford's decision to dump Finance Minister Vic Fedeli would seem to indicate that there was something wrong with the budget's overall thrust.
But that is not the message in Ford's words.
"It was a reasonable budget and a thoughtful budget," Ford told the post-shuffle news conference. "We had to make some tough decisions. But those tough decisions were responsible."
Ford even went out of his way to tell reporters that Fedeli "did an incredible job as finance minister."
Ford's penchant for hyperbole has been a hallmark of his time as premier. He frequently calls his cabinet and MPPs "a bunch of all-stars" (and was calling Fedeli his "all-star minister of finance" as recently as last month). He said "no government has accomplished more" in its first year than his. Under the Liberals, "No one was interested in investing in Ontario or Canada anymore."
With such statements, Ford paints himself into a corner of expectations that may be hard to meet.
The closest Ford came on Thursday to acknowledging that perhaps his first year has been a little rough was when he said: "There's a couple things we could have done better." Asked for examples, he offered not a couple, but just one: communication.
"Our message wasn't getting out," he said. "We had so many accomplishments last year that we couldn't keep up."
Perhaps Ford is coming to the realization that getting a message to the voting public (not just the party faithful) requires more than creating social media posts masquerading as TV news items, as his PC caucus communications team does with its "Ontario News Now."
But Ford could be failing to see the real problem that is causing his slide in the polls, and the drop in his approval ratings — which played out in real life recently when the premier was mercilessly booed by the young, diverse crowd at this week's Toronto Raptors championship celebration.
Ford campaigned on a promise that he could get rid of the deficit and cut taxes with no pain. All it would take was finding efficiencies. Not one single person would lose their job in the public sector, he said over and over.
Ford and Fedeli then overstated the size of deficit, and along with Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, went on a mission to cut costs. Even when the budget was released, Ford and the PCs buried much of the detail and said the government was spending more on health care and education (disingenuous, since both are actually being cut if inflation and population growth are factored in).
The reality is it was a budget full of cuts. Reporters and municipalities gradually found the details, resulting in weeks of negative coverage. That's when the PCs' precipitous slide in the polls began.
So the moral of the story for politicians: if you tell people that you're not making cuts, they will get angry when it turns out that you are.
If Ford's staff want to take the temperature of the people, they should listen to the call-in on the CBC Radio noon hour show Ontario Today. It attracts listeners of all political stripes and all corners of the province. A particularly telling call on Thursday came from Richard, a PC party member from the southwestern Ontario town of St. Thomas. Richard lamented the arrogance of PC MPPs. "We watch them passing these bills where they're making these cuts and everyone's laughing, they're cheering," he said.
Ford has plenty of time to win back voters like Richard and turn around his political fortunes. He doesn't have to face the electorate until 2022. However, changing the titles of the people in his cabinet is in no way a magic formula to begin that turnaround. Most ordinary voters would struggle to name more than a few cabinet ministers and don't really care who is minister of what. For them, Doug Ford is the face of this government.
Perhaps unintentionally, Ford reinforced that sense by holding his post-shuffle news conference without any of his ministers. (When the Ontario Liberals had a shuffle while in government, they made every new cabinet minister available to scrum with reporters.)
After Thursday's shuffle, Ford stood behind the microphone unrepentant and alone.
Remember that nearly every one of Ford's cabinet ministers supported other candidates in last year's PC leadership race. Few MPPs believe Ford is the reason they won their seats in last year's election.
If his shuffle fails to bring about a new direction for the government, and the polls don't improve in the next year, PC MPPs will start to worry about their prospects of re-election. And they will likely conclude that the problem isn't who's sitting around the cabinet table, but who's sitting at its head.