What not to do -- the crisis in leadership at Queen's Park

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford at the Humber River Hospital Mass Immunization Centre in Toronto. Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

Premier Doug Ford stares out at the camera like a deer into the headlights, looking not so much like the leader of 13.5 million Ontarians giving a COVID-19 news conference, as a frightened schoolboy caught truant without an excuse.

He begins to cry.

He apologizes.

"Come on guys, give me a break," he pleads.

He announces hopelessly to a frightened public: "We're losing the battle…we're on our heels."

Even his most diehard "everyman" supporters in the GTA seem to have recognized that this is not leadership. Ford's approval rating has fallen to just 28 per cent, according to a recent Abacus Data poll -- not far off the 25 per cent of prime minister Pierre Trudeau when he resigned in 1982.

It's embarrassing for Ontario voters. Not as embarrassing as his late brother Toronto mayor Rob Ford's crack video perhaps -- which made Canada the brunt of late-night talk show humour in 2014 -- but embarrassing enough.

Imagine British prime minister Winston Churchill crying in a broadcast to the public during the dark days of the Battle of Britain, or president Franklin Roosevelt telling Americans that all hope was lost following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Instead, they galvanized nations in times of crisis with strong leadership and inspiration.

Leadership is defined as "the capacity to lead."

The military, which arguably knows a thing or two about leadership, refers to the "mystery of command" -- but what is it, exactly?

The U.S. Army Leadership Requirements Model (ALRM) lists 10 core leadership competencies and attributes: leads others, builds trust, extends influence beyond chain of command, leads by example, communicates, creates a positive environment, prepares self, develops others, is a steward of the profession, and gets results.

Ford's scorecard on leadership attributes, at 28 per cent, is dismal.

While leadership is important at the best of times, in a crisis (such as the current COVID-19 pandemic), it is… well, critical.

It has been obvious to many for some time that Ford has no idea what needs to be done to protect the public from COVID-19, and also lacks the requisite leadership skills to lead Ontario through the pandemic to a best possible outcome.

On April 16, Ford announced tighter restrictions to combat growing COVID-19 infections. These restrictions included closing playgrounds, banning outdoor gatherings, extending the stay-at-home order, provincial border closures, and expanded police powers to stop vehicles randomly.

Criticism of the new measures was swift and widespread. Police departments across the province announced that they would not be enforcing the random stop and playground closure regulations. This was an alarming occurrence itself -- law enforcement refusing to enforce provincial law -- which seemed to warrant more concern than it received as a barometer of civic condition. 

Less than 24 hours later, facing a huge public backlash, Ford backtracked. This further damaged his credibility, and reinforced growing public opinion that he was just making it up as he goes -- following a path of least resistance, rather than one determined by science and analytical reasoning.

Ford then played hooky from the legislature, abandoning his ministers to explain to the opposition that he was just trying to "limit movement."

Ontario Health Minister and Deputy Premier Christine Elliott told members: "Our government has been following the recommendations made by the medical officer of health, the science advisory table, and others."

Unfortunately for Ford and Elliott, the head of the science advisory table, Dr. Peter Juni, contradicted this:

"No. When it comes to outdoor spaces, it's the actual opposite of what we were pointing to. I can't lie, I was pretty desperate that the root cause of the pandemic had not been addressed."

So much for the "science" excuse.

Elliott blamed the draconian restrictions on the science, but science denies this. Did Elliott misunderstand the expert recommendations, or deliberately lie?

Either way… it doesn't look good for the Ford government.

It creates mistrust in government, and raises the question: what else has Ford been wrong about?

Elliott made things even worse by attributing the rollback of restrictions to popular opinion, rather than science, stating in the legislature:"However, we did hear from people that this was not something they wanted. We are listening. That is why we made that change."

This left the public wondering why Ford's pandemic response plan was being determined by public opinion polls instead of science… since most members of the public are not epidemiologists.

Adding insult to injury -- or heaping misery upon misery -- Ford also announced in a statement that there would be delays to two shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying that it would be devastating to the rollout plan. Vaccination numbers had already fallen from the previous week.

Ford's ever-changing vaccination plan has garnered recent criticism, with government leaders often issuing contradictory statements. Carleton University communication professor Josh Greenberg was quoted as saying:

"There do not appear to be any core principles guiding the provincial response, and it's not clear from one day to the next who is in charge. Is it the premier, the chief medical officer of health, general Hillier, or the regional health units?"

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has called on Ford to "do the honourable thing, and resign." As he said in an online statement:

"It is abundantly clear that Doug Ford has lost the trust of the people of Ontario. He does not have the skillset, the capacity, or the interest, frankly, to get Ontario through this COVID-19 pandemic…"

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said, "The province is going to a (sic) hell in a handbasket."

As Washington Post columnist David Moscrop wrote:

"Getting rid of a premier with a majority government is difficult outside of an election. But Ontarians cannot wait to hold Ford accountable at the ballot box. A caucus revolt might do it. But even without one, for the good of the province and his own party, Ford should catch the next train to political oblivion."

Come on Mr. Ford, give Ontario a break.

Ken Grafton is a writer living by the river in Aylmer, Quebec, just downwind from Parliament Hill; with global executive-level experience in engineering and telecommunications. He covers primarily politics and journalism, and is a regular contributor to the Hamilton Spectator, National Newswatch and numerous other news publications.

Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

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