Don’t look now, but Ontario’s premier is starting to impress
Quick now: Which politician has impressed or surprised you the most with their competence and leadership during the COVID-19 crisis?
It wouldn’t be John Tory. We expect solid, strong leadership out of Toronto’s mayor — even while he’s in self-isolation — in part because he ran one of this country’s most important companies (Rogers), served as opposition leader at Queen’s Park, and has been mayor for more than five years already.
It probably wouldn’t be Justin Trudeau (prime minister for more than four years) or Chrystia Freeland (deputy prime minister), who impressed so many by helping to bring the new free-trade agreement with America and Mexico to a successful conclusion.
No, I think this one’s a slam dunk, actually. The answer is Doug Ford.
Ontario’s premier had perhaps the worst first year on the job of anyone who’s ever had it. His populist bombast. His constant fights with anyone and everyone. His original chief of staff, who became embroiled in a patronage scandal. Those were the lowlights of a supremely bad first year. We also have to remember that, when he became premier in June 2018, he’d had a whopping three months of experience in provincial politics — hardly enough to draw upon when the you-know-what began to hit the fan.
But, ever since the COVID-19 crisis emerged as a daily reality in the lives of Ontario’s more than 14 million citizens, Ford has performed well above and beyond most observers’ expectations.
Unlike some other leaders (yes, you, Donald Trump), Ford has never tried to downplay the significance of the crisis. He’s never said the thing would burn itself out. He’s never told us to relax, that everything was fine. Trump did all of those things and more.
Instead, Ford has taken to the podium every day during the crisis and conveyed deep empathy for the public he serves.
Trump freelanced his way through his initial Oval Office address to the nation, and the result was the second-worst single-day stock-market crash in American history. Even after that — spurred on by his fans on Fox News (one of whom has since been taken off the air for her journalistic irresponsibility) — he played fast and loose with the facts and continued to shake hands with fans at rallies.
Conversely, Ford learned from his one misstep. No doubt in an attempt to calm the choppy waters, Ford urged people to travel, have fun, and get away during March break. He quickly realized that kind of freelancing was unacceptable during a global pandemic, and, ever since, he has been on point with his advice and stewardship of the crisis.
He has also declined to take any partisan potshots at this time. He called himself “a big fan” of Freeland. In his speech in the legislature earlier today, he noted that this was no time to talk about “the blue party, the red party, the orange party, or the green party. It’s about coming together. We’re all Team Ontario and Team Canada.” The premier’s actions have matched his words.
Politically speaking, the COVID-19 crisis has also given the government another opportunity. It’s allowed the Tories to feature their better performers during daily briefings. And
- Health Minister Christine Elliott,
- Finance Minister Rod Phillips, and
- Labour Minister Monte McNaughton have not disappointed.
They, too, seem well-prepared to answer reporters’ questions and have conveyed the sense of gravitas the moment requires.
Perhaps equally important, this crisis has given the government the opportunity to sideline many of the ministers whose performances have been too controversial or disappointing. Education Minister Stephen Lecce is known to be a strong performer. But his constant presence in the media over the previous months was a frequent reminder of the government’s precarious and increasingly unpopular position during negotiations with teachers. Lisa Thompson, the minister of government and consumer services, had become one of the province’s most unfortunate embarrassments thanks to her ill-fated attempts to defend Ontario’s new licence plates. Neither has seen the media Klieg lights for a while.
Things have changed so much at Queen’s Park, the premier actually said these words earlier today: “I want to thank the media. You’re playing a massive role in helping us out.” And perhaps the biggest shockeroo: “There are a lot of great articles in the Toronto Star.”
There is no media outlet in the world that has had a more tempestuous relationship with both Doug and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford than the Star. So to hear the premier say those words demonstrates just how much things have changed over the past month.
Once the crisis passes, is there a likelihood that things will go back to “normal”? Of course there is. This is politics, after all. Mindless partisanship on all sides will return. Potshots will be taken. And the relationship with the media will get more hostile.
But, for now, we should all just take a moment to appreciate this moment of unity, when Ontario’s 26th first minister surprised so many by performing so well.
Ford, who died just over a year ago, from cancer, lied constantly and consistently and railed against the media and liberal élites. As one scandal led to another, he surrounded himself with cronies and family loyalists and, when truly tested, fell back on the flag-waving rallies that fired up his base.
.. In a city of immigrants, Ford’s message wasn’t built along racial divisions but along economic and social ones. Toronto’s inner suburbs were his Appalachia, less wealthy than the downtown core of the city, which served as his proxy for a sort of coastal élite. Ford created a culture war, presenting himself as an advocate for the hardworking everyman with the long commute behind the wheel on potholed roads and against the coddled, bike-riding latte sippers who lived downtown. Ford evoked his “war on the car” as brazenly as Trump’s own “war on coal.”
.. He effectively adopted this posture despite the fact that he inherited millions of dollars from his family
.. His typical supporter was the small-business owner fed up with taxes and traffic, who believed that he was ignored by a political class focussed on high-minded ideals of global urbanism and walkable cities. His campaign slogan was “Respect for Taxpayers,” and he promised to stop the city’s “gravy train” of runaway spending, on behalf of the little guy.
.. His swearing-in ceremony was conducted by the hockey commentator Don Cherry, who wore a pink double-breasted paisley suit in mockery of the “left-wing pinkos” opposed to Ford
..he included the city’s newspaper reporters, a group of people “that ride bicycles and everything,” Cherry said, implying a host of liberal sins.
.. When, three years into his tenure, journalists reported the existence of a video showing the mayor smoking crack, Ford fell back to his base and the comforts of the culture war.
.. Post-truth was a hallmark of his administration. He peddled in falsehoods (for example, a repeatedly disproved claim that he’d saved the city a billion Canadian dollars) and flat-out lies (he claimed not to have smoked crack, even though the video had been seen by numerous journalists, police, and others who described it in detail), and reiterated them loudly and unashamedly. Efforts to debunk his lies were dismissed by Ford as nothing more than the jealous desperation of the liberal élites. His Breitbart was a weekly call-in afternoon radio talk show that he hosted with Doug, coupled with friendly columnists at the right-wing Sun tabloid newspaper
.. The more Rob Ford’s lies were flagged and earnestly debunked, the more he was perceived as a straight shooter by his base.
.. Ford’s foibles were, to them, a big middle finger to Toronto’s status quo.
.. Jimmy Kimmel mocked him nightly. But nothing stuck. He was shameless, and that shamelessness coated him like Teflon.
.. but as the months wore on and Ford stayed the course it all felt a bit futile. Why bother writing articles, mounting investigations, and uncovering facts if they had no discernible impact?
.. What we couldn’t see at the time is that politics is a long game. Yes, Ford held onto office, but, by the time he was forced to bow out of his reëlection campaign, because of illness, his political career was already damaged. His name was a global punch line, he retained few political allies, and many of his formal powers had been stripped from him by the city council. Even his radio show was cancelled
.. Yes, the true loyalists of Ford Nation still adore him, and many voted for his brother, but his appeal to a broader base of small-government conservatives was gone. It hadn’t vanished overnight in a sudden, dramatic revelation that forced Ford from office. It built over each story, eroding Ford’s appeal bit by bit, until at least some of the voters who put him into office were ashamed to admit they’d done so and did what they could to right their mistake.
Perceptions of a new divide between haves and have-nots emerged, exemplified by an epidemic of traffic-snarling condo construction and a growing class of young, affluent creatives. To those who weren’t benefitting from the boom, or who simply preferred Toronto as it had been, the city’s council and left-leaning mayor seemed élitist and out of touch, content to levy taxes from their perch downtown.