Opinion

Doug Ford's dumpster fire explains why Ontario tolerates years of Liberal mismanagement: Robyn Urback

In its first year in office, Ontario's Progressive Conservative government led by Doug Ford has brought back many of the same gross-looking antics as the previous Liberal government, with a spread of malicious-seeming cutbacks to boot.

The same sorts of scandals, plus austerity measures, lead to an unhappy province

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's first year in office has been marred by scandals and backtracking on unpopular policy announcements. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

I can't decide which scenario I prefer: either Doug Ford's team is so hopelessly incompetent it couldn't have foreseen the problem with, for example, granting a $165,000 patronage appointment to a 26-year-old family friend of then-Ford chief of staff Dean French, or the premier's office is brimming with Ontario Liberal sleeper agents who are quietly setting fires to pave the way for a triumphant Liberal comeback in just three years' time. 

The second scenario is probably preferable since, theoretically, one could sniff out the sleeper agents and expel them from the administration. But it's much harder to fix chronic incompetence, which appears to be the characteristic that has plagued the Ford government in its first year at Queen's Park. 

Ford has gotten into trouble over cosy appointments before. His friend Ron Taverner was appointed head of the Ontario Provincial Police after the job requirements just so happened to be changed, allowing for Taverner's candidacy despite his initial lack of qualifications. Taverner eventually withdrew from consideration because of the controversy.

Though the province's integrity commissioner later cleared Ford of any wrongdoing (the commissioner did, however, raise questions about the extent of French's personal involvement), the stink of the scandal should have taught the premier — and the team tasked to protect his image — to steer clear of even the whiff of a conflict of interest. 

Patronage appointments

Instead, just this week, the Ford government appointed a relative of French's wife, as well as a friend of French's son, as two of four new agents-general for Ontario, tasked with drumming up business outside of the province. Ford then revoked the appointments less than 24 hours later, apparently belatedly realizing that you shouldn't pluck names from your Christmas party list for prestigious international appointments.

French, who has long been cited by both insiders and outsiders as the source of much of the premier's trouble, resigned as chief of staff Friday evening. This might be the structural reset caucus was looking for, but there's still a long way to go to rehabilitate Ford's image in the eyes of the public.

This back-and-forth has become somewhat of a pattern for the Ford government: Make some sort of triumphant announcement (Bigger class sizes! New autism funding structure! Retroactive cuts to municipalities!), cock your head at the blowback (But kids will be more resilient in larger classes! Don't you want us to eliminate the autism wait list? You know how much waste there is at city hall?) and then surrender to the pressure (Here's some money to prevent teacher layoffs. OK, we'll rework our autism plan. Fine, we'll cancel those retroactive cuts).

Ford has tried to spin these backtracks as evidence of a "government that listens." Instead, it comes off as a government that simply has no idea what it's doing. 

It didn't have to be this bad. The Liberals set the bar of scandal and waste so low that basically all the Progressive Conservatives had to do was show up. Yes, Ontario was and remains deeply in debt, and yes, the only way the Ford government could begin to reverse that is by cutting spending (or raising taxes).

But it did so clumsily, in dribs and drabs, after campaigning on a ridiculous and impossible promise that the transition would be painless, and that not a single person would lose their job. 

And it fumbled the message, which should have been focused on the billions of dollars Ontario wastes each year on interest on debt, which is the fourth-largest line item in the provincial budget. 

In 2019-2020, Ontario will spend $13.3 billion on that interest, which is the same thing as spending $13.3 billion on nothing — not health care, not education, not social services. Just interest. Ford's message should have been that we need to get spending under control so we don't have to spend $13.3 billion on nothing. Repeat that number: $13.3 billion. On nothing. Make it so every Ontarian can rattle it off. Don't sell empty nonsense about magic efficiencies, then pivot to beer in corner stores. 

Both former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne and Ford bolstered their party coffers with so-called cash-for-access fundraisers. (The Canadian Press)

The Wynne government didn't bother selling — or implementing — austerity measures, though it certainly had to grapple with scandal. The PCs were supposed to offer change in that respect, but in practice, the Ford government has simply mimicked much of the same unacceptable behaviour. 

Premier Kathleen Wynne used public dollars for partisan purposes by spending millions to advertise a hydro rate cut. Ford is using public dollars for partisan purposes by buying radio ads attacking the federal carbon tax and mandating gas stations post stickers for the same purpose. Both bolstered their party coffers with cash-for-access fundraisers. Both were accused of chummy patronage appointments. 

But the Liberals didn't do all of those things while also selling across-the-board cuts, resulting in everything from reduced coverage by legal aid, to widespread layoff notices for health-care administrators, to desperate families saying they might need to sell their homes to pay for therapy for their children with autism. 

That is perhaps why Ontario stomached the Liberals for so long: the scandals and mismanagement were gross, but at least the government kept the money flowing.

If the PCs were going to have any shot at all, they had to be upfront and smart about the way they cut back, and on top of it all, they had to be squeaky clean. 

Instead, in its first year, the Ford government has brought back many of the same gross-looking antics as the previous government, with a spread of malicious-seeming cutbacks to boot. This is how a province sours on a party so profoundly that it keeps a scandal-plagued Liberal administration in power for 15 years. This is how the Progressive Conservatives lose a province, again.  


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About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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