Opinion

Denley: Doug Ford’s summer plan — avoid all controversy

The Ontario premier is keeping a low profile this summer and it’s a good move. Meanwhile, his party is gearing up for the 2022 provincial election.

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Has anyone seen Doug Ford lately? You know who I mean. Big fellow, used to be in the news all the time talking about COVID-19 horrors.

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The Ontario premier is keeping a low profile this summer and it’s a good move. While there is certainly something to be said for Ford’s long run of daily media events during the pandemic, he eventually became greatly over-exposed. There is only so much one can say, and Ford’s daily message that his heart was breaking for those who paid the price for his lockdowns and no one wanted to reopen the province more than he did, became a tiring contrast with reality in the most locked-down jurisdiction in North America.

Time and opinion polls will tell if absence makes the voters grow fonder, but it’s certainly worth a shot. Ford’s approval rating was 62 per cent in June, 2020. A year later, it had slid to 40 per cent.

Reducing Ford’s public exposure is part of a smart summer strategy by the Progressive Conservatives, who are well into what will be a year-long re-election campaign. It’s not as if the premier is doing nothing, but he’s staying out of controversies. Instead, he’s travelling the province dispensing good news. Just in the last few weeks, he has announced support for hospitals, wineries, young workers, small businesses, Great Lakes shorelines, long-term care, addiction services and a Tamil community centre in Scarborough.

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Time and opinion polls will tell if absence makes the voters grow fonder, but it’s certainly worth a shot.

While Ford is accenting the positive, he’s letting Dr. Kieran Moore, the new chief medical officer of health, carry the ball on the pandemic and economic reopening. The most recent slackening of pandemic restrictions came several days earlier than Moore had originally indicated, but having him make the announcement took away any impression that Ford was pushing the doctor to act earlier.

The government has even reversed its enthusiasm for spending control, at least publicly. Instead, it is engaged in some stealth fiscal responsibility. A July report from the province’s financial accountability office delivered the welcome news that government spending during the pandemic was significantly less than anticipated. The PC budget was boosted by $22.1 billion to handle pandemic demands, but actual spending was $10.3 billion short of that figure. Revenue is also expected to be higher than the government forecast.

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The net effect is a deficit of $29.3 billion. It’s still a staggering sum but markedly better than the $38.5 billion the government forecast. It will make any budget balance plan the government offers in the next election more plausible.

The Ford government expended all the money in its pandemic-related health and jobs funds, heading off a familiar opposition complaint that the government was sitting on pandemic dollars.

The improvement in the budget picture would normally be considered good news of the first order by a PC government, but Ford’s team took no credit for its fiscal control, instead stressing how much it had spent. Clearly, they think we are not yet back to the time when fiscal responsibility is rewarded.

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The PCs are trying to re-establish a positive story line so they can start focusing on jobs and the economy this fall. They can have credibility on those issues but the challenge is to overcome the lingering damage and bitterness caused by Ontario’s stringent economic lockdowns. Ford’s “open for business” slogan is just a bad joke now.

Ford’s political future is still dependent on the future course of the pandemic. If there is not a fourth wave significant enough to persuade the ultra-cautious premier to implement another lockdown, then he should be in good shape. He can point to the success of the vaccination program and the pandemic will be a moderately distant memory by next June’s election. If COVID is in the forefront of the news throughout the winter, the prognosis for the PCs is not so good.

For now, Doug Ford is enjoying the sunny days of summer and hoping there will be more.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

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