Over the past week I’ve had a fair share to say about the performance of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government, as the COVID situation in Ontario has spiraled out of control. Most of my views and assumptions have been based on my experience working in politics and working on Parliament Hill. That experience led me to believe that this was a government truly on the brink, all over the map and in big trouble.
But even with that experience, you could have fairly called my thoughts as an educated guess based on my reading of the tea leaves. It’s what added up looking from the outside, but in that sense, it’s true that I’m looking in from the outside, like the rest of us. Yet today CBC’s Queen’s Park report Mike Crawley has published a fascinating piece on what has been going on inside the Ford Government. It’s a report that is truly a must read, but is also disturbing as it is fascinating:
Wow everyone, wow. That piece was a scary confirmation of my instincts and educated guesses, and I don’t say that with any happiness. There are so many jaw-dropping details going on in that piece that just left me shaking my head that it’s hard to know where to start. Do you start with the “rushed” and baseless move to give the police extraordinary powers and close parks? Or do you start with the apparent fact that the Ontario PC cabinet is divided basically as urban, fight COVID members vs. non-urban, fight COID measures members? In a past time seeing the names of Ford’s campaign director Kory Teneycke and pollster Nick Kouvalis would be the highlight. Yet this story is so deep with disturbing details that their inclusion doesn’t get much more than a quick glance.
What’s amazing about this story to me is that is shows one thing clearly; Ford and his government knew what they needed to do and simply refused to do it. There were voices at that cabinet table that were basically saying “follow the experts”, so that was a part of the discussion. Instead you ended up with a mishmash of actions that resulted in the polar opposite. According to the CBC story, the Cabinet had a long meeting on Thursday and agreed to “next to no new restrictions, and MPPs were briefed on it Thursday night”. But by Friday, someone had gotten in Premier Ford’s ear, told him that wouldn’t have gone over well with the public and then sprang into action. That brought about another knockdown, drag em out cabinet meeting that ran late that led to the disastrous measures announced.
Consider this fact from the reporting; in Ford’s mind, what was agreed to in their Cabinet meeting on Thursday was somehow going to be publicly worse than the terrible plan they released Friday. That despite the fact that Attorney General Doug Downey reportedly told Cabinet that he thought the police powers might be unconstitutional. As CBC points out, “Ford’s cabinet has plenty of other lawyers, including Christine Elliott, Caroline Mulroney, Ross Romano and Prabmeet Sarkaria.” So you get all of those lawyers around the table, the governments top lawyer raises constitutional concerns and the decision that comes out is somehow “meh, shag it, we’ll do it anyway”? If the Premier won’t listen to his Attorney General on something this important, how can this AG continue on and pretend he has the confidence of his Premier? Or otherwise put, how can an Attorney General stay in his job if his boss ignores him on such a huge, fundamental issue? That would be a situation where many AGs would simply resign on principle, yet instead that played out Friday.
What’s also amazing to me is the report on Ford’s reaction to police department after police department telling him “No” to using these powers they never asked for. Crawley’s reporting describes it as “rattled”, which is telling about Ford himself. Did he honestly think that the police would leap at the chance to potentially abuse the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens? It seems so because why else do this? Why else take this action?
Well the answer to that question comes from the confusion about who is getting the credit or the blame for the idea. While there seems to be no agreement in who gets the lions share of the credit for “arbitrary police powers and shut playgrounds” plan, there is one group who is getting none of it: the experts. None of the governments health or scientific advisors were asking for this, yet many of the political voices around the table were. When you see blame/credit being thrown at specific cabinet ministers, senior staffers, campaign officials and pollsters it tells you that this wasn’t an evidence-based decision, but a very political one that was trying to solve a political problem, not the public health problem. That’s a symptom of Ontario’s biggest problem lately in dealing with the COVID crisis and it’s something that another pollster, Greg Lyle, really puts his finger on here:
Lyle goes deep into the Ford response to COVID and in his observations, he drills down on this point; “the government must stop making decisions that broker interests and start making policy that solves the problem.” Or otherwise put, if you take this reporting at face value it confirms that Ford and his team are trying to treat this as a political problem and solving it with political approaches and solutions, instead of treating it as a policy solution. A public health crisis is solved with public health policy, not political solutions or approaches. That points to why Ford and his team refuses to take any public blame or own up to the government’s failures in the past months. The refusal to accept blame is a political approach. Trying to blame others is a political approach. But as Lyle correctly points out, “If the Premier continues to suggest the experts did not warn Ontarians and tries to shift blame onto the feds, Ontarians will remain angry and unforgiving.” That’s because Ontarians can see, hear and read everything the experts are saying. We know when we’re being told the truth or being spun, and we don’t like being spun in the middle of a public health crisis.
The solution to the Ford’s government problem here is not a political one, but if had been done early could have reaped political rewards. That solution was to simply do what must be done to fight COVID and stop it in its tracks. No excuses, no spin, no finger pointing and most importantly, no thinking about the direct political implications. Just do what needs to be done, stomp out the disease and do what you can to build confidence in fighting the disease. If they did that and were successful, that would build confidence in the public towards this government and likely would have brought political rewards at the end. But doing that would have involved putting aside their immediate political interests and instincts, and also having confidence in what they were about to do. It would have involved taking a leap and having confidence while doing so.
What’s striking about all of this put together is how it confirms some of the worse of what we assumed was happening here. I don’t like to think of the worst of those who I disagree with politically, so I try not to jump to places that lead to that thinking. That’s why I couldn’t ignore all the smoke that was pouring out of Queen’s Park last weekend, because it was clear that something was up. Crawley’s reporting confirms a lot of that, which doesn’t make me happy. I don’t like Mr. Ford’s government and would never vote for them, but in the middle of a pandemic, I don’t want to see them fail. I believe that most people want to see them succeed because if they do, we all do in this moment. But folks when they’re failing, we simply can’t ignore it, lives are at risk. And when you read that story, it is a story of failure and a refusal to act upon the advice of the experts. That’s something that’s completely within the power of the Ford Government to change and now it just remains to be seen if they will do that.