Only time will tell. Photo credit: Twitter/Doug Ford
It was a rare sight at Queen’s Park last week. A politician stood up, admitted he was wrong, took responsibility, apologized for breaking his promise and abruptly changed course.
After weeks of controversy and perhaps irreversible damage to his brand and to his government, Ontario Premier Doug Ford finally backed down on his plans to build much-needed housing on a small parcel of the protected Greenbelt lands around Toronto.
He has lost two cabinet ministers and at least three senior staff members over the affair. His standings in the polls, while still remarkably strong, have taken a beating.
Can he recover? The election is two years away and in politics, that can be a lifetime. But the key question for the Premier is “what has he learned?” Can he use the learnings to avoid another similar quagmire in his push to “get it done,” his iconic campaign slogan?
It is one of the most critical skills for a political newbie. As this space has noted before, there is no real on-the-job training for a Premier or a Prime Minister. Most elected leaders pick up the basics by serving time in the political trenches as Opposition leader or in a senior cabinet position. Ford had neither opportunity before he was given a majority government.
He and his chosen team saw the many checks and balances within the government as red tape instead of the processes necessary to think through the wisdom and execution of a potentially controversial decision.
An ability to cut through government red tape is a welcome skill, as is the willingness to make controversial decisions in the public interest, in this case, to build badly needed affordable housing.
But by the Premier’s own admission, this was a flawed process from start to finish, well intentioned, but poorly thought out, planned and executed.
What is more worrisome is what it seems to say about the government’s internal culture. A potentially serious red flag went up with the recent resignation of one of the Premier’s most competent ministers, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton. He was not involved in the Greenbelt controversy and is leaving for an undisclosed private sector job.
For a young man with a young family, jumping out of the firepit of politics for a no-doubt better paying job with a better chance of work-like balance may not seem unusual. But he was seen as an up and comer in the government, a possible successor to the Premier. And his work at building a political power base showed that he too had thought about it as a possible next step.
Reports coming out of the government’s recent caucus and cabinet retreat reveal an unhappy bunch. Not surprising after the last few weeks of turmoil, but also indicative of a challenging workplace culture and a chaotic decision-making process in general.
Working in government at the political level is never a job for shrinking violets. But one wonders at McNaughton’s departure. It also brings to mind the departure of another talented political up and comer two years ago, former Finance and Long-Term Care Minister, Rod Phillips.
Also, one wonders why an experienced politician like former Housing Minister Steve Clark just stepped back and let a staffer run rough-shod over the usual policy vetting process, the usual checks and balances, why no one appeared concerned over the perception of favourable treatment for some developers and not others.
Where was cabinet office? Where were the experienced voices in the bureaucracy? It is true that civil servants can be a barrier to dramatic change, but it is also true that their experience can provide a useful source of needed wisdom.
The Premier did the right thing last week. But the housing crisis has not gone away. Nor have the many other challenges he is working to fix in health care, long-term care, infrastructure, environment, and education. They all require dogged determination, a bias to action and a willingness to make tough decisions.
He still has many talented and committed individuals in his caucus, his cabinet, and his political team. Let’s hope they can pick themselves up, put this behind them, assess what they have learned and carry on. “Get it done” is still badly needed.
Janet Ecker is a former Ontario Finance Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Community and Social Services and Government House Leader in the governments of Premier Mike Harris and Premier Ernie Eves. After her political career, she served as the founding CEO of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, a public-private partnership dedicated to building Toronto region into an international financial centre. She currently sits on a number of corporate and non-profit boards, agencies and advisory committees.
Ms. Ecker received the Order of Canada for her public service contributions and was recognized as one of the “Most Influential People in the World’s Financial Centres” by Financial Centres International. She also received a “Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award” from the Women’s Executive Network and the Richard Ivey School of Business, among other awards. She is also one of the founders of Equal Voice, a national, multi-partisan organization working to elect more women.