Ford keeps popping up, to Conservatives' chagrin

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends the Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce, the Whitby Chamber of Commerce and the Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade Luncheon. Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

You have to wonder if federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer wishes he could push Ontario's Doug Ford down and out of media range between now and the federal election in October.

You know, perhaps with a mallet like in that old fairground game whack-a-mole, in which those pesky critters pop up randomly out of holes and you have to pound them back in. Bam, bam, bam.

It's the perfect metaphor for this political summer, one that was supposed to have Ford's Ontario Progressive Conservative government take a five-month furlough and stay out of the news so that Scheer and his parliamentary contenders could safely knock on doors in the province without having them slammed in their faces because, well, you know, Ford.

Ford, whose popularity, as measured by poll after poll, is tanking. That, despite making appearances "for the people" all over Ontario in his attempts to be likeable again.

He may still be smiling -- a barely upturned grimace -- but his eyes show fear and uncertainty.

And no wonder. This is the Ford who got loudly booed at Toronto's celebration of the Raptors basketball victory. The Ford who disconnected his "dial-a-premier" mobile phone because of "special interest groups" calling him at all hours. The Ford whose promise to "end hallway medicine" within a year will actually take many, many more years to fulfill, as Health Minister Christine Elliott just had to announce. The Ford who now requires high school students to take four online courses in order to graduate, even if their families can't afford computers. The Ford caught in a patronage scandal that just keeps on a'giving and a'giving, with a bodycount (so far) of seven dumped from their high-paying positions. The Ford who keeps trending on Twitter, with hashtags like "#CorruptAF." The Ford who missed his own deadline for a new Toronto transit strategy after, once again, ripping up years of research and a shovel-ready route.

And that's just this summer … so far.

Whatever plans the federal Conservatives had for their Ontario election campaign while the provincial PCs would presumably be flipping burgers at legion halls in the hinterland, they overlooked one important factor. The news beast must be fed non-stop in the digital age and, if Queen's Park journalists don't have question period to cover, they'll find something else to investigate and report on.

Which they have. The Toronto Star has been relentless in its coverage, picking up where it left off with former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, Doug's younger brother. The paper has broken damaging stories on transit, cronyism and mental health care. The Globe and Mail let rip a powerful feature on Ford's friends and influences in the lobbying business. Even the usually Ford-friendly Toronto Sun has taken a few swipes.

And so Scheer is collateral damage, as evidenced by the polls. A few months ago, when SNC-Lavalin and former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybauld were all the pundits could discuss, he was on top. Now, not so much.

According to Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data:

"This election year started with downward momentum for the Liberals and growth for the Conservatives. Both those patterns have arrested, and the race is especially tight in Ontario and B.C. In Ontario, the impact of Doug Ford's unpopular policies and style is a headwind for Andrew Scheer."

Not that Scheer's campaign has so far been brilliant. His most recent news fodder was his kowtowing to the supportive dairy industry by railing against the new Canada Food Guide. He claims he will revamp the recently revised guide, which has been receiving raves from medical practitioners around the world, to include more milk and cheese because the life of his picky-eater kid was "saved" by chocolate milk.

But Scheer is trapped in Ford's enormous shadow. He's trailing a year of the premier's cuts to health care, education, universities, libraries, emergency services and transit, plus his $30-million fight against the federal carbon tax and his billion-dollar effort to privatize alcohol sales. All this while giving free rein to developers to build condos just about anywhere, without regard for infrastructure, wildlife and environmental concerns.

To many voters, Ford looks like the trailer for a Scheer horror show. Which is why we don't see them anymore in the same photo op, like at the Calgary Stampede where both turned up at the flapjack grill. 

And to think that just last fall, they enthusiastically shook hands for the cameras, agreeing that they would take down Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals together.

So yes, Scheer has got to be wishing he could knock Ford out of the headlines. But, just like those maddening wooden moles, Ford just won't stay out of sight and out of mind.

Antonia Zerbisias, former CBC-TV journalist and Toronto Star columnist, writes about society, media and politics.

Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

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