Despite government reset, Ford's main problem remains

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

That timeworn joke about shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic certainly applied this month when Ontario Premier Doug Ford kicked his A-team ministers below deck and into lesser cabinet positions.

It was not unexpected.

That's because the Conservative government had spent its first year bumbling, fumbling and stumbling through one PR disaster after another, axing critical services including health care and education and even support for autistic children.

Ford's front bench never failed to back him up, with standing ovations at Queen's Park. That earned them the deserved and derisive epithet "clapping seals" because they were so clearly command performances.

What's more, the ministers loyally ventured out into their ridings, tweeting formulaic selfies as they pumped gas into their cars to complain about Ottawa's carbon tax,  or stood in front of convenience stores promising more choice and cheaper beer, or donned Tory blue T-shirts as they raved about the attendance at the premier's freebie Ford Fest.

While they dutifully faced the news media delivering the bad news about public library services, regressive sex education and cuts to student loan programs, der leader skipped from banquet to bun toss delivering more unfulfilled promises of a buck-a-beer and cheaper prices at the pump.

For the people, my friends.

Suckers.

Now we know, of course, that Ford's recently departed chief of staff, his former leadership helmsman and likely puppet master, Dean French, was in the background, overseeing the laying waste of Ontario.

French, as it turned out, was stacking the deck with friends and relatives in government sinecures, reviving foreign positions which included six-figure salaries, expenses, and, presumably, staff, residences and considerations for immediate family. Now these and perhaps other appointments are supposedly under review but journalists seem to be uncovering them faster than Ford's office.

It should come as no surprise that Ford is so inept as premier. His one term as a Toronto city councilor was a disaster. His subsequent run for mayor a failure. He barely won the Conservative leadership.

And he apparently skipped his high school civics class.  Two months into his term at the party's helm, he slammed a reporter who asked if he knew how a bill was passed by angrily dismissing it as "a gotcha question," adding that his government would "pass endless bills."

Then, after winning a majority government, he wasted no time clearing out the hated Liberals from Queen's Park and charged into governing with no transition period and no opportunity for his caucus to learn the ropes.

It was full steam ahead: "endless bills" with virtually no time for debate and discussion. He handed the hinterland to developers. He repeatedly attacked Toronto with cuts to its city council, public health-care budget and its transit system. He eliminated alternative energy programs, killed the minimum wage increase, took away funds for much-needed school repairs … well, the list does go on, and on.

But somehow Ford himself was rarely around to answer for his government's actions. His appearances were carefully stage-managed and he often skipped question period. He had his taxpayer-funded video "network," Ontario News Now, to capture him in the most flattering settings, without pesky questions from actual reporters.

Ford left his wrecking crew of senior ministers, who, unlike him, have years of political experience, to swab the deck he dirtied with his directives probably driven by French. But cleaning up after Ford would prove to be impossible, which is why the premier claimed that the now-demoted cabinet ministers had "communication" problems.

This apparent self-delusion is probably why he seemed so stunned to be booed at public appearances, most notably at the huge welcome reception for the victorious Toronto Raptors.

He really has never had to face his critics. Anyway, in his mind, they are all downtown Toronto latte-sipping elites, not "the people" he thinks are his "friends."

No wonder he avoided Toronto's big Pride weekend, which, conveniently, coincided with his Ford Fest. Of course, there are questions about how much taxpayer money went into that, with its beefed-up police presence, caucus T-shirts and Twitter templates.

(Speaking of which, why hasn't Ford denounced the violent attacks by helmeted far-right squads on Pride participants in both Toronto and Hamilton?)

Now Ford has until after the fall federal election to get his B-team up to speed; to lie low and not blow it for Conservative leader Andrew Scheer; and, to flip burgers at every fundraising barbecue in the province.

He may think he will have reset, refreshed and regrouped his government by the time Canadians go to the polls but his main problem remains.

Himself.

He is the iceberg that his government struck.

He should have gone down with his ship.

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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