Jordan: The Ford family is no stranger to politics, obviously. Nor are they strangers to rapidly fluctuating public opinion. So when Ontario Premier Doug Ford was elected with a large majority in 2018 and immediately started implementing some unpopular cuts and policies, he probably expected to see somewhat of a drop in his approval ratings. And instead, they went over a cliff.
News Clip: A new poll just released this evening finds support for Doug Ford’s government here at Queen’s park is collapsing. Doug Ford has a net favourability rating of -53.5%.
Jordan: By the end of 2019 it looked like Ford and his government were badly underwater. So badly underwater that barring something unforeseen in momentous, the next election might be a foregone conclusion. And lo and behold something unforeseen and momentous. I don’t know about your expectations for Doug Ford’s leadership during a crisis, but I spent last year reporting an entire podcast on his brother’s time in City Hall and as mayor of Toronto. And so it’s safe to say that on the basis of that work, my own expectations were low. And maybe most people’s were. But now, six months into this here we are.
News Clip: Premiers’ popularity have seen a big boost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ontario’s Doug Ford leads the way with a 38% increase to his approval rating.
Jordan: So how did this happen? Did Doug Ford masterfully handle this disaster? Or just exceed those low expectations? Does his current popularity reflect real changing of opinions? Or just the kind of bump that any leader would see in times of trouble? And what became of the Doug Ford so many Ontarians had soured on in February? Did he change? Or is this just the circumstances? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Nick Taylor-Vaisey is an Associate Editor at Maclean’s. He spend time talking to Doug Ford’s staff and PC insiders and Ford’s opponents. Hi Nick.
Nick: Hey Jordan.
Jordan: Why don’t you just start by kind of setting the stage. At the beginning of February, how was Doug Ford doing as premier of Ontario? How popular was his government? What was he looking at?
Nick: Doug Ford was, it’s fair to say, pretty unpopular premier. Whenever pollsters would do their kind of Pan-Canadian views of how premiers are doing across the country, Doug Ford was near the bottom. His approval rating was somewhere around 30%, depending on the poll, which is quite low. His predecessor, Kathleen Wynne was also a pretty poorly rated premier for much of her time. And so Ontario, maybe it’s just tough on it’s Premier’s but he’d racked up a few kind of pretty big own goals over the first couple of years of his time as premier. So that was reflected in the polls.
Jordan: What were those own goals? Because he won election in a large majority.
Nick: Yeah. He won a whole lot of votes in a whole lot of it where politicians in Ontario always love to win them, which is to say, suburban Toronto and other suburban ridings in the province. He rode to power on an anti-Liberal agenda. His, election platform was pretty sparse. You might remember that the PC’s actually published no official platform. They just put out ideas day after day and we were left to kind of guess what the full picture was going to be. But over the first couple of years in office, a lot of different media organizations were tracking the cuts that he was making to various programs, he and his government. He made very unpopular cuts to autism funding that upset just a lot of parents of special needs kids and people who knew those parents and those kids. You know, and that hit him pretty hard when it happened. His handling of the education system was, I think, seen by a lot of parents and school trustees as lackluster and I think generally he just wasn’t seen as an inspiring choice. He wasn’t seen as a leader with a vision, so much as a leader who reacted to things and acted rashly and bullied his way through governance and Queens park and took no prisoners along the way. Which was kind of the reputation of his late brother, Rob, when he was mayor of Toronto. They seem to have a particular Fordian way of governing for those who elected them.
Jordan: As we were sitting here in February, and I’m not asking you to speculate, I guess, but if I were to say that personally, his chances of reelection seemed pretty dim to me, would that be somewhat fair?
Nick: If they weren’t dim, they were at least unclear. It was a strange time and it continues to be a strange time in Ontario politics because the Liberal party that typically governs this province when the PCs don’t had just historically crashed at the end of Kathleen Wynne’s time. And they had just recently elected a leader, Steven Del Duca, who to this point even now has kind of struggled to gain traction because becoming a politician with a profile in the COVID era is particularly tough. And then you had Andrea Horvath and her NDP, who were the official opposition, but were also sort of lagging in the polls for a variety of reasons also, probably including it’s hard to distinguish yourself during a pandemic era. And so it was a little bit– the polls were sort of mixed. They had the PCs dropping, they had the Liberals rising, and the NDP dropping as well. And so you have this, a little bit of a three-way race, but I think it’s fair to say it was not a foregone conclusion that Doug Ford was going to win again , as ever it would have depended, in an alternate future where COVID didn’t hit, on, you know, the relative strength of the Liberals and the NDP and the various algorithms that flow from that. But you know, I guess who knows, but it certainly was going to be a tough one for him.
Jordan: What was his first instinct and action, late February, early March, when it became clear something really dangerous was happening?
Nick: He picked up the phone. This is what people near him say is his instinct. It’s another very Fordian thing to do. Rob Ford did this when he was coucillor and mayor in Toronto. If you called him, he’d pick up and he would talk to you. And he would even come to your house to see exactly what’s wrong with, you know, whatever you’re complaining about. Doug Ford picked up his phone, and basically talk to anybody who he thought could help Ontario weather the storm that was coming, whether it was PPE manufacturers, other premiers, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, anybody who could unlock funding for Ontario, you know, it kind of, he was indiscriminate is how they say it, when he was picking up his phone and talking to people about how they could save Ontarians’ lives.
Jordan: What were the expectations for how he would have handled this? From other politicians, from his opponents, from the public in general? Cause you, you know, you mentioned his brother Rob, and we did it a whole podcast on Rob Ford last year, and initially that’s how Doug struck me, and I was incredibly wary of how he would handle something this serious.
Nick: I think a lot of people were wary of Doug Ford coming into a pandemic because he’s not seen as a premier with nuance, or he wasn’t before the pandemic hit. And I think a lot of people probably thought nuance would be an important trait to have as a leader. Doug Ford’s style is very different from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Both were up in front of Canadians and Ontarians every day in those early days of the pandemic, and you could see the difference in their styles. And I think a lot of people saw what they expected from the Prime Minister, but we’re a little bit surprised to see what they saw from Doug Ford.
Jordan: Early in March, he told families to go on and go out for March break and have fun and don’t worry. And I was like, okay, this is my worst expectations confirmed. Tell me about the reaction to that and what changed afterwards.
Nick: Yeah, so that’s Doug Ford’s old ways, right? Kind of shooting from the hip, saying that, you know, the thing that I can do if I’m Premier right now is to reassure Ontarians and how can I do that? Well, they want to go on vacation. They want to go on March Break. They should go do that. He did say in the same sort of breath, or an earlier breath that, you know, the province was watching the progression of the viruses, you know, spreading across Ontario closely, so he didn’t say basically, Hey, there’s nothing to see here, go have fun. But he did say, we’re watching closely, you know, we’re being very cautious, we’re listening to the experts, but go have fun. And of course, what people take away from that is the thing they want to hear, which is that the risk is low and they can go enjoy their, you know, go enjoy their time. And whether or not it was directly correlated, we did see a spike a couple of weeks later, a lot of people were out for March Break, that that did not go over well with a lot of people who were in sort of the, you know, in the thick of projecting what’s going to happen with this pandemic in early March. A lot of people were saying at that point, we really should be staying home. We really should be keeping away from even our closest loved ones who aren’t part of our household, because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next. Yeah, I would say the experts panned that pretty quickly. In fairness to the premier, the public health guidance coming from a lot of premiers at the time was a little bit mixed. Everyone, even people governing provinces, were just catching up to the evidence that was coming at them a mile a minute from their various public health experts and medical officers of health. But even with that caveat, I think it’s fair to say that that was his first major blunder, and he would probably admit to that.
Jordan: What changed afterwards? Cause how did we get from that blender to where we are now?
Nick: A couple of things. One was he went to Ottawa for a First Ministers meeting, along with all the other premiers, they were all in town. They were about to meet with the Prime Minister to talk about a whole wide variety of things. The agenda that they were going to confront was daunting and coronavirus was tacked on towards the end of planning. So they were going to go over a bunch of stuff. And of course, that meeting was cancelled. The Prime Minister’s wife was being tested for the coronavirus. She came back positive. They only learned that, the Ford team only learned that the next day. They’d already left Ottawa to go back to Toronto. Because of that kind of experience, that sort of shocked the staff, I think, into just the gravity of this. The closure of schools, which at first was just for a couple of weeks, also kind of shocked, I think the Premier into taking this a little bit seriously. And his staff also say that the reaction to the March Break blunder really revealed to Ford that people are hanging on his every word. And they say, he always kind of, you know, he knows the power of his voice, but there was something about the reaction to that, he thought that, okay, let’s giddy up. And then he had public health experts telling them just how bad it could be. And so then a few days later, obviously he shut down the economy, which for Doug Ford, pro-business Doug Ford was not– I don’t think there’s anything he ever would have predicted. Obviously that’s kind of an understatement. Nobody would’ve thought a Ford would ever shut down the economy. So those series of events dramatically changed his thinking.
Jordan: What kind of image was he projecting at this time? Because I think a lot of people remember, in those early days, wherever you were in Canada, you were watching your Premier’s daily press briefings because we didn’t know what the hell was going on.
Nick: I think everybody watching the premier interpreted his face a little bit differently. I think some people, definitely some people I know, you know, I think I saw it a little bit, saw some fear in his eyes. Doug Ford may be just a really bad actor, but he really seemed to be worried. He knew when he was saying things like Ontarians are dying and, you know, businesses are going to have to close and some of them may not reopen, he wasn’t able to really hide the gravity of that. And his voice, to me, it was wavering. Some people may disagree, but even PC insiders, people who know him really well say that obviously it had an effect on him. They may not agree that he looks scared or that he was wavering, but they would say he definitely reflected the feeling of empathy for Ontarians who were about to go through something. I mean, he didn’t know quite what, but he knew it was going to be bad. And I think everybody, to a degree, sees that in the premier. And they also typically– as you say, everyone’s kind of watching everyone. And the Prime Minister would be up earlier in the day in those days. And Justin Trudeau’s style was very different. He spoke very seriously, you know, and with that very Trudeauian gravitas that he whips up for important moments. But he didn’t have the same character in his voice. And so it was a pretty stark difference when you watch both of those guys on the same day. Especially on the days when the news was particularly bad. Trudeau was really announcing funding more than anything, and emergency plans, where Doug Ford had to confront the human impact of this on his voters and citizens here.
Jordan: How did Ontarians respond to that?
Nick: Well over time, relatively short order of pollsters who asked Ontarians what they thought of Doug Ford’s performance got responses back that were much more positive than they were in February or early March. By mid March and then April and then May, instead of 30% of the province approving of Doug Ford’s performance, you had that number double to somewhere around 60%. And so that’s still 40% of people who answered a poll saying they didn’t approve of Doug Ford, but doubling your polling numbers is no small feat, especially for a guy like Doug Ford, who is divisive on purpose, right? I mean, he doesn’t go out of his way to unite people. He’ll definitely say he’s standing up for the little guy and he’s in it for the people and all that sort of the taglines that sent him to Queen’s Park. But he’s not known as someone who’s, or at least before the pandemic, he wasn’t known as someone who was a bridge builder on purpose. And people reacted to his performance positively. They saw him building bridges and they saw him picking up the phone. They saw him at one point, go to a medical supplier and pick up tens of thousands of masks without telling his staff. Which was something that sounds like a PR stunt, but really wasn’t, by all accounts, it was the premier just picking up his phone and getting a call from someone and saying, I’ll be right over, and he took his pickup truck. I mean, people responded positively to that because it was a leader who was hands on and who really seemed like he cared.
Jordan: You touched on it briefly at the beginning of our chat, but tell me about how his relationship with Ottawa evolved? Because anybody who thinks back to the election last year will remember the federal Liberals just crapping on Doug Ford, every chance they got in their attempt to win Ontario.
Nick: Yeah. What a wild ride. You’re right. It was basically campaigning in the greater Toronto area seats that Doug Ford had won provincially, and slamming the Premier and his government every chance they got. And what happened after the Liberals won? Well, Doug Ford apparently called the Prime Minister and said, it’s water under the bridge. You won. I won. Let’s govern for the people of Ontario. And Chrystia Freeland was named Deputy Prime Minister. And one of her jobs was to go patch up horrible relations with a number of provinces, particularly in the West, but also with Doug Ford, and a relatively– not a hostile government necessarily, but a government that didn’t really see eye to eye with the Liberals, and a government the Liberals had slammed for months and the relationship between Deputy Prime Minister Freeland and Doug Ford sort of blossomed. The Toronto Star at one point, during the middle of the pandemic’s kind of worst moments, talked about how they called each other each other’s therapists, Freeland and Ford. And I think that raised a lot of eyebrows among a lot of people who either like one, or like the other, and were surprised that there’d be such a kinship there. But when you kind of look beneath the surface at both of kind of their characters and approach to governing, both are hands on, both like to pick up the phone. And so it actually is a little bit natural that they struck up a bit of a friendship because, you know, they’re both Toronto people, and they might see the world differently on a lot of levels, but they both wanted the same things during the pandemic.
Jordan: You talked to more than just the insiders on Ford’s team, you talked to people who’d worked against him and other observers. When you take everything you heard into account, what do you think history will look at as Ford’s biggest successes during this time, and his biggest failures?
Nick: I think actually one of his biggest successes is also one of his government’s biggest failures. And that is the longterm care crisis that was apparent before the pandemic probably do a lot of people, but the horrifying details of the conditions in some of those longterm care homes, you know, it hit the headlines in late May and basically, I think everybody who saw those reports, who read those news stories were aghast. I mean, everybody knows someone or has known someone who’s been in one of those homes. And the fact that conditions were allowed to fester and ultimately cost lives, I mean, hundreds of lives, is a huge mark against the Ford government. I mean, they’ve now– the premier has taken responsibility for it. He says, it’s on him. They’ve struck an inquiry of sorts, not the inquiry the opposition wants, but an inquiry into exactly what went wrong. But you know, they won an election in 2018 and in 2020, two years later almost, these conditions were the rule in a lot of places, not the exception. So he’s got to answer for that. And a lot of people aren’t going to forget those scenes and they’re not going to forget their loved ones who died alone in those homes. But that said, I did talk to somebody who had a real inside view of the testing situation in longterm care homes. And they said that for several days at when this longterm care crisis was really at its apex, Doug Ford was pushing for testing of every resident and every healthcare worker, every staffer in those homes. And the public health officials were pushing back and they said that he faced sustained resistance. He, for several days, said we have to do it. And they said that that’s not how we fight outbreaks. Outbreak management means using testing expeditiously, carefully. You don’t want to waste tests. You don’t want to test people who don’t need testing because this particular test is quite unpleasant. If you test improperly, you might end up with a lot of false positives or false negatives or whatever. You just have the wrong, you know, you have faulty tests. And he pushed back and he pushed back and eventually they changed the policy and they tested everybody. And this particular person with that view of that policy change said that saved lives. It could have saved hundreds of lives. It’s almost impossible to model out the lives saved, obviously, but that decision did allow public health officials to learn more about the disease, including the benefit of testing asymptomatic individuals. They weren’t doing that before Ford kind of bullied his way into changing that policy. So it was something where his particular style of leadership paid off, and that sort of hands on Fordian style made a real difference. However, of course, on the other side of that argument is the crisis existing in the first place, and the government haven’t answered for that. So it’s a bit of a mixed bag. But I would say that longterm care was both his greatest moment, and his worst moment of probably his premiership, but definitely the pandemic.
Jordan: Do we know, when will we have any idea of, if this is real, if Ford has, you know, genuinely changed minds and won over people who weren’t supporters of him? Or if this is, you know, leaders tend to see a surge in support in moments of crisis?
Nick: I mean, it’s definitely the latter. To a degree, every premier in Canada received a bump, which is natural, of course, in times of crisis. There were, I think, a few milestones that are worth watching. It’s probably, I would say generally agreed that the first phase of the pandemic has reached some sort of conclusion. You know, those first series of lockdowns, first economic shutdown, schools shuttering indefinitely for a time, that’s winding down. Everybody kinda got used to that way of life. And now we’re resetting in the summer. And of course the return to schools in Ontario will be just an enormous moment, or like series of moments for parents, kids, and this government. And I think there’s a pretty genuine risk that the premier, if something goes wrong, will blame public health officials. Because he has said he’s relied on their expertise, you know, thus far. And for the first few months, as the handling of the pandemic seemed to be positive– I mean, a lot of deaths in Ontario, for sure. Like 2,700 people died. But it did seem like the public health measures were having an effect and they were effective enough that the premier didn’t feel the need to throw his experts under the bus. But if something goes tremendously wrong with the return to schools in one or more areas of this province, that that could lead to some form of political chaos, for sure. And what does that mean for his approval rating? Well, there are a lot of parents in this province, but Doug Ford was an unpopular premier before among many of those people. So that’s one thing to look for. And then I think the other broader milestone, and it may be harder to pinpoint, is just the general return to normalcy. And if there is a second wave of his virus in the fall or the winter, and if a vaccine doesn’t come for a while and there are a series of prolonged shutdowns, you know, it’s one of those things that’s as unpredictable as ever, that obviously could hit the Premier’s popularity. Cause at a certain point, people, I mean, this isn’t exactly brilliant political insight, but at a certain point, people are gonna get tired of a leader who can’t seemingly bring them out of a crisis, whether or not it’s his fault or not. People look for an enemy. Melissa Lantsman actually, a PC insider, told me for the story something, she worded it very poetically, and she said, when the enemy is no longer the virus, the enemy is the politician. It’s just natural. It’s how these things work. So, you know, he might, if there were an election tomorrow, based on his handling so far of this pandemic, he might win a huge majority government, bigger than the last time. But if, after six months from this point, when we’re in the dead of winter and people are sick again, and people don’t feel safe, I mean, who knows? Who knows? Cause at a certain point, the sympathy for the Prime Minister and the premiers and the leeway that a lot of people give them in times of crisis might eventually sort of bleed away. I mean, when people don’t have money to pay their bills, they get desperate.
Jordan: Yeah. Well you know, regardless of what it means for Doug Ford, we can hope it doesn’t come to that. Thanks, Nick.
Nick: Yeah, definitely. We can all agree on that.
Jordan: Nick Taylor-Vaisey of Maclean’s. That was The Big Story. For more, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You know the drill by now. Write to us, email us. We’d love to hear from you. The address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. Find us as a podcast network on Facebook or Instagram at @frequencypods. And of course, find this podcast, other podcasts, so many podcasts in your favourite podcast player, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Doesn’t matter. Hit that subscribe button. Keep listening. Thank you for doing so. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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