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Ford has changed his team, but Ontario’s “government for the people” remains on the same self-destructive track.

August 3, 2019

The famous physicist Sir Issac Newton’s first law of motion states that objects in motion will continue in motion at the same speed and direction, unless some external force is applied to change their trajectory. The same principle is often true of government policies as well. These continue in the direction in which they were initially set, until there is a specific intervention to change them.

There are few places in recent memory where this principle is truer than Doug Ford’s Ontario. Despite the chaos of the past few months, featuring a major cabinet shuffle including the dumping of finance minister Vic Fedeli, the demise of the premier’s controversial chief of staff Dean French, and statements that Mr. Ford’s administration is now “a “government that listens,” remarkably little has actually changed in terms of directions set during Ford’s first year in office.

Several high-profile political appointments attributed to Mr. French, have been dropped, and others are now under review. The question of how these appointments, which by statute were subject to Lieutenant-Governor in Council (i.e. cabinet) approval, occurred in the first place, remains unanswered.

The government also backed down on current in-year funding cuts to municipalities, particularly for public health services, in the face of an outcry from local governments, health professionals and others. A major reversal on the funding of services for children with autism seems to be in motion as well.

Beyond these specific steps however, the directions set through the province’s April 2019 budget, sweeping omnibus bills moved through the Legislature, and a wide array of administrative decisions, remain very much intact and in motion.

The major reductions in provincial funding in the health, education, social services, along with everything from tree planting to small business start-up and training support, set in motion through now ex-finance minister Fedeli’s budget remain in place. Even deeper cuts are schedule for future years – a point highlighted again by last week’s protests over the government’s 30 per cent cut to the province’s legal aid system.

The Bill 108 changes to the province’s planning legislation favouring developers remain very much on the books, as do more specific developer-friendly changes made to the province’s planning policies. These moves reached down to the level of interventions in neighbourhood specific plans, like the City of Toronto’s Midtown in Focus and TO Core plans, to systemically eliminate height limits on new development and remove references the nature of public spaces in these areas. The dismantling of programs ranging from energy efficiency to the prevention of toxic pollution continues apace.

The radical changes made to provincial and municipal institutions similarly persist. The Offices Child Advocate and the Office of the Environmental Commissioner have been eliminated as independent entities. Toronto City Council stands at half of its pre-election size, and the province’s moves to take control of the city’s subway system continue to advance.

Amid all of this there has been one notable exception to the province’s policy inertia of disruption. Last December the province introduced a high-profile “made in Ontario” environment and climate plan. Little has been heard of the plan’s climate change provisions, including a carbon trust fund, and some form of carbon pricing for industry, since then. This even as parts of Muskoka and the Ottawa river valley disappeared under unprecedented spring floods and storms, and the premier himself acknowledged  that climate change was part of the cause of the disasters.

Instead, despite a widely expected defeat to its challenge to the federal government’s backstop carbon pricing system in the Ontario Court of Appeal on June 28th, the government has stated its intention to continue its quixotic challenge in the Supreme Court of Canada. The implementation of the federal carbon pricing and rebate system in Ontario was triggered by the province’s termination of its cap and trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, almost immediately following the June 7, 2018 election. The legal challenges are to be accompanied by a widely ridiculed requirement that gas stations attach stickers to their pumps, blaming the federal carbon pricing system for higher gas prices.

All of this begs questions about how much the government has actually “listened” and reconsidered its directions. The government’s internal interpretation of the dramatic decline of its public approval ratings following the tabling of its first budget was that it was facing a “communications” problem, as opposed to the public objecting to the actual contents of the budget. Senior ministers were shuffled out of their portfolios on the basis that they had been poor communicators of the government’s message, rather than there being something fundamentally wrong with the message that was being delivered to “the people.” The implication is that the government can stay on the same track in terms of the substantive content of its policies. It just needs to improve its communications strategy.

The problem with this approach is that public’s objections to the government’s directions seem far more rooted in the increasingly apparent impacts of the government’s actions around health care, education, land-use planning, social services and other areas affecting the everyday lives of Ontario residents, than failures to communicate effectively. These impacts have become all too real as, for example, high school students have brought home lists of the names of their teachers being laid off for the following year, and individuals with complex out-of-hospital health care needs have seen their arrangements thrown into turmoil with the dismantling of the Local Health Integration Networks (LIENs). If the government continues on the fiscal and legislative trajectory set in motion over its chaotic first year, those impacts can only become more severe and widespread.

A failure to change direction more substantively than the marginal shifts seen so far could be a fatal and unrecoverable error on the government’s part. Unless the Ford government can demonstrate that it really can listen to the people, adjust its trajectory, consider real evidence regarding the consequences of its choices, and demonstrate some administrative competence, the rule of the ‘Ford Nation’ will be a one term phenomena deflected by the external force of an angry electorate.