Toronto Mike

Politics is a Funny Business by Steve Paikin

There’s never a great time to be on strike, but ya gotta admit, for those of us at TVO currently off the job, this is probably the worst time to be off.

With Doug Ford’s government passing the five-year mark in office, Ontario’s 26th premier has never seen his hold on power look this tenuous. His handling of the Greenbelt issue was disastrous. It has cost him two cabinet ministers (Steve Clark and Kaleed Rasheed), Clark’s chief of staff (Ryan Amato), not to mention the bridge of trust the premier had managed to establish between himself and a good chunk of the electorate. He has won two consecutive majority governments, after all.

Well, even though I have no official outlet for my once-weekly columns for TVO, a writer’s gotta write! So here’s my take on the historic events of the past few weeks (with my usual proviso that my brother is a homebuilder in the Hamilton area, which I pass along in the interests of full disclosure).  

We’ve been here before with this premier. He has made decisions in the past which were extremely ill-advised. But somehow, Ford’s political superpowers have enabled him to sheepishly approach the microphone, apologize to one and all, then turn the page.

During the worst of the COVID pandemic, Ford overreached, bringing in draconian restrictions, including shutting down outdoor tennis courts and golf courses. The public mutinied, so Ford simply called a press conference, apologized, loosened up on the restrictions, then watched his popularity numbers go up again.

On another occasion almost a year ago, Ford tried to impose a contract settlement on 55,000 education support workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Then he went further, saying if a court overturned his back-to-work legislation, he’d use the Notwithstanding Clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to enforce his settlement.

Holy hell rained down on him. The heads of every significant public and private sector union in Ontario came forward to tell the premier to stand down … and stand down he did. As he did during the COVID overreach, Ford simply “aww shucks’d” his way to another apology, said he wouldn’t use the Notwithstanding Clause after all, and can’t we all just be friends again.

Apparently, we could. Ford’s polling numbers firmed up again. Well, it’s déjà vu all over again. But this time, the stakes are much worse. Everyone could tell --- and the premier admitted --- that his “process” for taking land out of the Greenbelt so developers could build homes there, amounted to an $8.3 billion windfall for not just any developers, but for some who had contributed significantly to the Ontario PC Party, or purchased tickets to a Ford family event (a stag for a new son-in-law).

Polls show the public rightly found this practice to be completely unacceptable. And as much as Ford surely didn’t want to reverse his decision, he came to understand that his stubbornness was creating an existential crisis for his government. Ford could stare down the opposition, the media, environmental groups, even the federal government. But when his own backbenchers came to him and said, Premier, we are all going to lose our seats and you are going to lose the next election if you persist in defending the indefensible, that managed to get his attention. So, Ford used the tried, tested, and true page from the Apology Playbook again. It’s still far too soon to say whether his backing down on building in the Greenbelt will have the same positive effect on his fortunes as previous climbdowns have.

For years, Ford has been saying the Greenbelt was a scam perpetrated on Ontario by the previous Liberal government, who essentially tossed darts at a dartboard to figure out the boundaries. (Provably false, but why ruin a good insult with facts?).  He never much respected the Greenbelt’s existence and was happy to change the boundaries willy-nilly to accommodate developers.

Now, Ford’s government has indicated it will introduce a new law that will not only increase the size of the Greenbelt, but will also codify its boundaries in legislation (not just regulation, which would be easier for any future government to undo). So, the guy who thought the Greenbelt was actually a scam may, at the end of the day, do more to preserve it than anyone would have imagined.

Politics is a funny business some days.

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