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At a press conference Wednesday to announce the implementation of vaccine passports, Ford busied himself trying to look statesmanlike (again)
With the nastiest federal election in recent memory now fading in in the rearview mirror, Ontario Premier Doug Ford officially emerged from his months-long summer sojourn talking up the need for national unity.
“Emotions have run high,” Ford said in a statement released on Tuesday (and repeated in a press conference on Wednesday), noting in particular “divisive” debates on pandemic policies and vaccine certificates during the campaign.
National unity would seem an unusual – and heady – subject for Ford, who has made a career out of steamrolling his political opponents. He’s also not one to talk, given the gaslighting and blame game he’s played on Ontario’s COVID response.
But it’s a familiar rebranding for Ford. It smells a lot like the Premier Dad, “we’re all in this together” messaging that characterized the first weeks of the pandemic and saw his approval ratings soar. That was then.
With a provincial election scheduled for June, Ford now finds himself fighting for his political survival, which is why he’s disappeared for long stretches hoping the electorate would forget his COVID sins – or that he’s even there.
To some political observers, Ford’s unity plea looks like a thinly veiled play for Erin O’Toole’s job. The federal Conservative party leader is facing a revolt over his election loss. A petition calling for a review of his leadership has attracted more than 2,000 signatures.
But unlike the slow burn of embarrassing revelations that sunk his predecessor Andrew Scheer after his election loss in 2019, there seems to be enough goodwill for O’Toole to hang on for now, absent a full-fledged caucus revolt. That could still happen.
In the meantime, Ford is busying himself trying to look statesmanlike for any eventuality.
He faces a daunting task to win re-election. But a day can be a lifetime in politics and by the time they go to the polls nine months from now, Ford’s handlers hope that Ontarians will have forgotten the shambles of serial lockdowns and ignoring science in favour of political expediency caused by Ford’s indecision and just plain negligence.
Yes, he’s failed to spend billions that could have saved lives. Yes, he’s sent kids back to school (again) in the teeth of another wave. And unlike the 2018 election where Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne became a flashpoint for voter hostility, there’ll be no bogeyman to vilify next time around. It’ll be Ford’s record that will be under scrutiny.
On that front, the list of harmful policy decisions – not to mention, allegations of improper lobbying by friends of Ford on a host of government files and favours for big-money developers – is a long one. Even before COVID hit Ford looked like a man on the way out.
But as the Liberals found out in the recent federal run-off, voters can be prone to political amnesia. What looked like a cakewalk before the writ was dropped ended up being anything but for Justin Trudeau and the Grits, despite the generous spending and best vaccine rollout of G7 countries to help Canadians navigate the pandemic.
The poll numbers are not in Ford’s favour. But while voters in Toronto (where the PCs hold nine seats) and the 905 hit hardest by the pandemic are less likely to forgive and forget, those in rural Ontario have been largely spared the horrifying scenes of loved ones in overcrowded ICUs and COVID deaths in long-term-care homes.
Ford’s opposition has also been weakened. The NDP under Andrea Horwath has failed to build on their historic election showing in 2018, unable to muster a sustained and effective attack on Ford and falling back and forth behind the Liberals in public opinion polls.
The Liberals under Steven Del Duca have managed to score some points and raise their profile, including more recently on the issue of vaccine passports.
But it’s still a long road back to political relevance for the party after being decimated in 2018 following the worst electoral showing in its history. They still don’t hold official party status, with only seven seats in the Legislature after the recent move of Michael Coteau to Ottawa. Del Duca himself has no seat.
Ford’s 76-seat majority (out of 124 seats) in the Legislature has been whittled down to 70 seats following a number of defections and ousters of MPPs over the province’s COVID response.
At his press conference on Wednesday to announce the implementation of a vaccine passport, Ford was back to playing with fire on the COVID file.
It’s no secret, he said, “that I was reluctant to use this tool.” He described the measure as “temporary” and “exceptional.”
Municipalities will be responsible for enforcement but that enforcement “would lead with education” and “continue to rely on individuals to do the right thing.” Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Ford’s handling of the pandemic. This measure, too, seems designed to fail.
The premier took six questions from reporters, most of which he didn’t answer directly. Expect his appearances in the Legislature (and in public) when the business of government gets underway again on October 4 to be few and far between. See you next spring.