Analysis

Doug Ford's first premiers' meeting more cordial than confrontational

Opinions varied on what role Doug Ford might play when he gathered with other premiers at the Council of the Federation. In the end, he lit no fireworks, appearing eager to meet new friends instead.

Anyone expecting table-flipping from Ontario's premier left Saint Andrews disappointed

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, attended his first summer premiers' meeting this week in Saint Andrew's, N.B. His host, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, wanted the talks to focus on trade issues, but Ford didn't always oblige. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Opinions varied on what Doug Ford might do when he gathered with other premiers at this week's Council of the Federation in Saint Andrew's, N.B.

Would the new Ontario premier want to make a big splash? Or hang back at his first summer premiers' meeting, listening and strategizing?

Ontario premiers have traditionally played a consensus-building, conciliatory role on the national stage, going back to Constitutional negotiations in the 1980s. The largest province in Central Canada usually occupies the centre of the road when premiers meet.

But Ford — whose populist style invites comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump — doesn't want you to see him as an elite power-broker. His brand is based on being the hard-working ordinary guy who's busting his hump for his people.

In the end, he lit no fireworks, appearing eager to meet new friends.

Social media misstep

On day one, Ford was already networking. But that's also when things took an embarrassing turn.

Staff had arranged meetings between him and two other premiers who have also voiced opposition to the federal government's carbon pricing strategy: Saskatchewan's Scott Moe and Brian Pallister of Manitoba.

Ford's attempt to publicize those meetings on Twitter went sideways, however, when whoever composed the tweet about Pallister misrepresented Manitoba's position on carbon pricing.

Pallister's staff was quick to set journalists straight, and Ford's tweet was deleted and rewritten in a hurry.

Most of this happened out of sight of journalists, who had no opportunities to question Ford until the premiers' closing news conference on Friday.

Ford first appeared to journalists walking with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe. It foreshadowed what became one of the key stories of the meeting. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

They were, however, invited to take his picture several times. When he first emerged for the cameras on Wednesday night, he was walking along deep in conversation with Moe.

Shortly after, he smiled alongside all the premiers for the traditional family photo.

Later that evening, cameras were summoned to the hotel to photograph Ford meeting Moe in "private."

Ford talked about how much he could learn from his fellow newcomer.

Moe and Ford invited cameras to their one-on-one meeting late Wednesday evening. 'He's a great guy. I've got a lot to learn from him,' Ford said. (Sarah Sears/CBC News)

No questions

That evening, he and Moe announced they'd make a brief statement — no questions — on their way into the start of talks Thursday, potentially upstaging the premiers' photo opportunity with Canada's ambassador in Washington, David MacNaughton.

Journalists and officials weren't sure what to think.

Nevermind that the morning was supposed to be about the premiers' united front on trade. Ford and Moe wanted us to know about their new strategic alliance against a federal carbon tax.

The short time in the spotlight did its work. Distracted journalists began filing on Ford's decision to support Saskatchewan's court reference, the hardest news they had that morning.

Several premiers came out to meet reporters at day's end. But reporters were informed that Ford would only appear for a photo op with Pallister and Quebec's Philippe Couillard.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Ford and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister strolled across the lawn in front of reporters for a few minutes at the end of the day Thursday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The three men emerged from the hotel in their suit jackets, walked a little awkwardly across the front lawn in the bright sun, stopped to chat, and then wandered back inside again.

Aides then emerged to pass out press releases about economic co-operation with Quebec (it's going well) and the trio's shared views on the influx of asylum seekers crossing irregularly into Canada from the U.S. (No shock, all three think the federal government should be paying the costs.)

More sunshine than snark

People familiar with the conversation in the premiers' room were underwhelmed with Ford's interventions.

Perhaps that's typical of a new premier still trying to get up to speed. But those looking for detailed policy points from Ontario weren't getting them.

On the other hand, he wasn't disruptive, and Canadians sometimes like their statesmen more low-key.

In the words of one of Ontario's most effective premiers, Bill Davis, "bland works."

Ford seemed to be in his element when he popped by to serve dessert at a local strawberry social, just down the street from where the premiers were meeting. Political staffers and members of the public were seen asking for selfies with Ford all week. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

When Ford finally became available at Friday's closing news conference, journalists took full advantage, peppering him with more questions than any other premier.

What they got in return was more sunshine than snark.

He effusively praised the leadership of meeting chairman and New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant. He said the last couple of days were "very, very successful" and thanked "the people of New Brunswick" for treating the premiers "like gold."

One reporter tried to get him to respond to a comment Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made about Conservatives "playing the fear card" on immigration.

But Ford didn't swing at that ball: "I'm not going to play politics with that whatsoever," he said.

He said he had a "great collaboration" with other premiers and, as for those who disagree with him about carbon taxes, "it's their choice."

A question put to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley drew one of the most interesting insights into the talks.

It turns out, after making their statement to the media on Thursday morning, Moe and Ford didn't even raise their carbon tax dispute in the main meeting.

So much for the anticipated showdown with NDP premiers defending their climate change policies.

"We did discuss this privately with some of the premiers," Ford told reporters.

"Every region is different. One size doesn't fit all. Other people have their opinions," he said, maintaining he was elected with a mandate to oppose carbon pricing and make Ontario competitive again.

Wait until next year?

After distracting, earlier in the talks, from Gallant's intended emphasis on international and interprovincial trade, Ford did his bit to help it before leaving.

On NAFTA: "I'm not going to get into the federal political arena there," he said, even as he vowed to keep taking lots of meetings with U.S. state governors.

But: "I can tell you one thing, as the new kid on the block, every single meeting I was in, it wasn't about being part of the orange team or the red team or the blue team, we had an enormous amount of consensus, there was great collaboration between all of us," he added.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Ford were in a cordial mood at the closing news conference. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Sure there was a couple of differences, but we worked it out."

And then to conclude: "I'm looking forward to next year, as Premier Moe is hosting it, with a great group of premiers."

That final statement sounds like benign flattery. But it could mask a bit of strategy too.

By next year, the Council of the Federation could have more Conservative premiers around the table. His new friend Moe will be helming the agenda. And having done this once, he'll know better how things work.