It’s been a telling few days in Ontario politics.
As intensive care units in hospitals reach the breaking point, Ontario Premier Doug Ford seems to have his sights trained on other business – namely, getting re-elected.
The premier has announced that the province plans to start reopening gyms and personal care salons starting on April 12. Some would call that delusional as new case numbers continue to rise and hospital administrators warn of the dire consequences of any move to reopen now.
But there’s definitely a sense around Queen’s Park of wanting to change the channel on the COVID crisis.
While there has been much speculation about a spring election in Ottawa – at least, Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole would have us believe the Liberals are angling for one – it’s Ford in Ontario who has been in election mode.
While party insiders are quick to point to polls showing Ford would probably be re-elected if an election were held today, there’s also a sense that things are getting away from the premier.
Last week’s Supreme Court of Canada decision upholding the federal government’s carbon tax, for example. Ford staked a ton on his fight with the feds. Now all he’s got to show for it is a $30 million bill he’s saddled taxpayers with in legal fees. Ford’s counterpart in Ottawa, O’Toole, is finding out what not having a climate plan can mean for your electoral prospects.
Ford doesn’t have to go to the polls until next year, but he’s been priming the pump for months so he can be ready to pull the trigger.
First, he cleared the way for PC incumbents not to have to face nomination battles. Then last month, his government moved to change election spending rules to increase the campaign donation limit to a maximum $3,300 per donor.
The Ford government’s recent budget, which the premier is currently promoting in a campaign-style tour, was also election-friendly by PC standards, noteworthy for the record deficit the government plans to run, which is a marked departure from the balance promised by former finance minister Rod Phillips in his economic update last fall.
With his overall approval numbers sliding over the province’s dodgy pandemic response, Ford has also been on the offensive attacking a familiar foe – that would be the PM, Justin Trudeau.
Ford called the feds’ vaccine rollout “a joke” last week. It was a headline grabber, to be sure. But it’s hard not to see it as an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that Ontario has the lowest vaccination rate of any province in the country while some 300,000 doses delivered by the feds sit in freezers unused. The blame game is becoming a more pronounced part of the PR script for the Ford government.
On Sunday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce got in on the act, releasing an open letter chastising the Trudeau Liberals for their vaccine rollout while calling on the government to have a plan in place to vaccinate school-age kids by next fall.
It’s a bit rich, of course, considering we still don’t have a vaccine for people under 18. It’s also the Ford government that went against the advice of public health experts and decided to re-open in-person learning in schools in February. We’re seeing the consequences of that decision in the surging numbers of variants of the virus in schools and their spread in the general population.
The amped-up language is all part of an effort by the Ford government to reframe the narrative. On that front, Ford has been engaging in an election-style game of now you see me, now you don’t with the Queen’s Park press gallery – which is to say he’s been strategically ducking the hard questions. A pecking order has emerged among the media, with the premier’s handlers making a point of ignoring requests for information from journalists in the press gallery who may be considered hostile while taking questions from Ford friendlies so the premier can look good on the evening news.
Recent revelations that Ford’s press secretary also happens to be linked romantically to one of his biggest boosters (namely, the Toronto Sun’s Brian Lilley) has raised questions of conflict of interest. It’s also brought to light Ford’s cozy relationship with certain members of the media.
The truth is you can pretty much draw a straight line between Ford government policy and narratives spun by symps in the conservative press now clamouring to reopen Ontario.
Right on cue, others among them are chalking up the thinner than expected numbers lining up to be vaccinated to “vaccine hesitancy.” Then again, if the Ford government hadn’t been so slow off the mark setting up vaccination sites the city wouldn’t have had to step in with sites of its own and there might not be so much confusion about where to get a shot.
Ford has so far managed to play the on-again/off-again rotating lockdowns to his political advantage.
While there has been pronounced public backlash in Toronto and Peel, it’s a different story in other parts of the province not as hard hit by the virus. Those are the folks Ford is banking on to return him to office.
With his current majority, he seems likely to survive an early trip to the ballot box – unless of course, the pandemic takes another turn for the worse. Then who is the premier going to blame?