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Opinion

Lessons from the Doug Ford School of Public Administration

By Les Whittington      

Treat the public like a bunch of dazzled rubes, avoid annoying demands for consultation and advance information, personal grudges are as good a basis for public policy as anything else, and other lessons from year one.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, pictured at the Manning Networking Conference in March, has had quite the first year in office, and there are a number of lessons to be learned, writes Les Whittington. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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OTTAWA—School is out at Queen’s Park, but here are the lessons for the next semester based on the first year of Premier Doug Ford’s government in Ontario:

Talk about helping “the people” while you slash programs that many need: Roll back promised funding increases for rape crisis centres, cut legal aid by 30 per cent, cancel a $1 increase in minimum wage, remove rent control for new units, get rid of the basic income pilot program, scrap legislation to help part-time workers, cancel free prescription medication for young Ontarians, kill off free university tuition for low-income students, and slice $84-million in funding for children and at-risk youth.

The public doesn’t pay attention so there’s no problem promising one thing and doing something else: Tell voters “not one single” public service job will be lost under a Ford government, then once elected change that to no “frontline” jobs. Then put thousands of teachers’ jobs at risk by raising school class sizes. Watch other jobs disappear at agencies that are being axed or downsized. Put thousands of beer store employees’ jobs in jeopardy.

Don’t worry about honouring your promise to continue with the planned increase in municipalities’ share of gas tax funding… they can do without that extra $300-million.

Treat the public like a bunch of dazzled rubes: Bread and circuses, supplemented with divisive anger, can be a winner, as U.S. President Trump has shown. Above all, in Ontario this means prioritizing beer and booze. Commenting on the Ford government’s budget, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner noted the emphasis: “If you look through this budget, it mentions booze and gambling 63 times, it mentions climate change 15 times, and it mentions poverty zero times.”

Avoid annoying demands for consultation and advance information: Better to release details of your unexpected decisions in phone calls to the officials involved rather than publicly, as was done with the planned amalgamation of regional health organizations. Another example: Without warning, the Ford government trashed years of urban planning designed to keep Toronto liveable when it took over the city’s planning in a move to allow developers to build higher buildings—and more of them—in the city’s downtown and midtown. After all, developers need a freer hand.

Personal grudges are as good a basis for public policy as anything else: Given the province’s power over Toronto’s affairs, why not unexpectedly cut the size of Toronto’s city council in half? Didn’t the council give brother Rob Ford a hard time when he was mayor? Rob Ford always favoured a subway line to Scarborough. By taking over subway planning, a Progressive Conservative government can make it happen. As for the provincial Liberals, only old-fashioned notions of fairness could have stopped the PC majority from changing the rules to keep the Ontario Liberals from having a chance to achieve official party status.

Provincial taxpayers are so apathetic they won’t mind if their tax dollars are spent on federal political ads: If your government opposes carbon pricing imposed by the Trudeau government, why not spend millions from the Ontario treasury advertising against it? Also, there’s no need in today’s post-truth environment to mention the fact that Ottawa will be rebating the carbon tax revenues to individual Ontario taxpayers.

Don’t bother the public with difficult issues like climate change or the need to prepare for the green economy: Voters will buy things like park clean-ups as a substitute for action on global warming. So, you can cancel Ontario’s cap and trade program and cut 700 green energy programs, undermine the province’s independent environmental watchdog, and earmark $30-million to challenge the carbon tax in court.

Policies based on illusions of past greatness are always more popular than forward-looking plans designed to try to address the complex issues of modern life: Reduce financial support of post-secondary institutions and kill off new satellite university campuses while cutting funding for innovative research and work on improving Canada’s economic prowess. The future will look after itself.

Don’t bother with nuisances like avoiding favouritism in major government appointments or not interfering in politics outside your sphere: Just because Toronto Police Supt. Ron Taverner was a Ford family friend didn’t mean he wouldn’t have been a good choice for OPP commissioner.

On the federal-provincial scene, a premier should stake out the most provocative position possible, as in this Ford quote from October 2018: “We’ve taken Kathleen Wynne’s hand out of your pocket … and we’re going to take Justin Trudeau’s hand out of your pocket.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer needs all the election help he can get, so pitch in. How could that not work out well for him?

Les Whittington is an Ottawa journalist and a regular contributor to The Hill Times.

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