Coronavirus: The education of Doug Ford

With no feeding frenzy of reporters at Queen's Park to contend with, the pandemic has been a situation tailor-made for Ford to excel – or maybe it's just the end of conservatism as we know it



Ontario Premier Doug Ford showed up at Saturday’s coronavirus briefing in a black T-shirt with the words Conquer COVID-19 written in white on the front.

It’s the name of the volunteer group started by former Canadian puck star Hayley Wickenheiser and actor Ryan Reynolds. On April 11, the group was collecting personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and other supplies for frontline health care workers at XYZ Storage on Eastern. Ford went by to drop off some donations of his own.  

Postmedia’s Brian Lilley noted the T during the press conference and remarked that Ford looked like he was coming back from an AC/DC concert. (Highway to hell?).

The premier has recently become a star in his own right in the eyes of many commentators for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Ford has maintained his composure throughout, causing many (including his critics) to comment on his remarkable metamorphosis. 

Ford has kept to the script, delivering daily messages from a teleprompter at press briefings. With one camera to speak to and no feeding frenzy of reporters to contend with (they must now call in to ask their questions) – not to mention, no opposition MPPs to answer to in the Legislature – it’s been a situation tailor-made for Ford to excel. That’s thanks also to the fact that NDP leader Andrea Horwath has been MIA. 

But there has been something else of late. It’s been a more emotional Ford. The premier for the people (remember that?) feels our pain. And if he’s said it once, he’s said it a million times: he has our backs.

Ford understands, unlike his conservative counterpart in Ottawa (we’ll get to that in a moment), that it’s not just financial support people need right now. They also need to feel that their political leaders appreciate what they’re going through. 

In that regard, Ford has embraced a rarely seen side of his political persona – the role of daddy protector, talking about the need for personal sacrifice and putting the “collective good” ahead of individual self-interest if we’re going to get through this.

His press conferences have been part therapy session, part rallying cry. He was at it again on Saturday. As Ontario experienced its deadliest day yet since an emergency declaration was issued last month, Ford was the picture of calm reassurance.

“If we look to the struggles of past generations we see that circumstances do not define these moments. It’s the people’s response to adversity that defines these moments. Because this is our moment. And we will be proud when we look back. Not because of what the government is doing – that’s only a small part. It’s what people are doing for each other. That’s what makes me so proud to be your premier. It’s what people are doing that keeps me going. They have our backs and we have theirs.”

It’s quite a turn for someone who has spent his entire political life running over anyone who gets in his way and preaching that less government is better government. He sounds nothing like the guy who rode into office and promptly set about cutting the crap out of the social safety and declaring war on teachers’ unions. He called teachers as heroes on Saturday.

Maybe he’s not the same person. Coronavirus has already fundamentally changed a lot about what we thought we knew about our planet. But for Ford, it’s simpler than that. For him, the current crisis is a matter of life and death. And when those are the stakes, there’s really little choice now is there?

A defining moment came last month when Ford was asked what people who lost their jobs should do if they can’t cover rent? And Ford uttered the now-famous words, “If it’s a choice between putting food on the table and paying your rent, then put food on the table.” His government suspended landlord-tenant tribunals effectively preempting evictions.

Ford’s transformation has caught many by surprise. Even the city’s intelligentsia and those in his own party who looked down at his meat-and-potatoes brand of conservatism have noticed. Marie Henein wrote in an op-ed in the Globe over the weekend that Ford “is showing himself to be a true leader.” She called it her “uncomfortable reality.”

Ford’s critics say it won’t last. That the pandemic is the crisis he needed – his come-to-Jesus moment – to turn around his reign of error. His approval ratings were the lowest of any premier in the country before the pandemic broke and scuttlebutt was that Ford was hatching an exit strategy. No doubt, he wouldn’t be the first political leader to turn tragedy into opportunity.

But clearly, he seems to also have gained an appreciation for the important role governments can play when it comes to responding to an emergency. Ford has had nothing but praise for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Apparently, Ford and Freeland have struck up a personal relationship. It’s a mutual admiration society.

Contrast that to Ford’s counterpart in Ottawa, Andrew Scheer. The zombie leader of the zombie apocalypse, as party insider Kory Teneycke offered recently, has shown an alarming disconnect throughout the crisis. That was on full display Saturday during the emergency session of Parliament with a smattering of MPs in the House to pass the government’s wage subsidy legislation. Scheer spent most of his time reprising his pre-COVID crisis role as the Ugly American.

Now it looks like the Conservative party will be stuck with Scheer for much longer than anyone bargained for with the leadership contest to replace him indefinitely postponed. It’s an inopportune turn.

The coalescing of federal-provincial interests to fight the pandemic has deprived Scheer of oxygen. More to the point, the massive financial aid programs not seen since the Great Depression to fight the economic fallout from COVID-19, has not only re-introduced the idea that governments have a fundamental role to play in society, but that people are prepared to pay for governments to play that role.

Call it the great coronavirus correction. Ford seems to be a little quicker on the uptake on that one than other leaders in his party. 

@nowtoronto

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