After not being in the spotlight for a few days after Ontarians rebuked his policy decisions, Premier Doug Ford emerged to apologize to the province for his actions on Thursday. It hadn’t even been a week, but Ford and his Ontario PC government had held a press conference the Friday before, where they wanted to increase police powers and shut down playgrounds.
However, the decisions which they claimed were being made to reduce the spread of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, were not supported by the Ontario Science Table, the medical advisory group assisting the government in making sound policy decisions. As the premier stood standing at the podium wiping away tears, it showcased a leader in disarray following days of public scrutiny.
“We’re seeing a premier and the people around him that are digging in and are quite frankly in panic mode and it shows,” said Supriya Dwivedi, Senior Counsel, Enterprise Canada, a national strategic communications firm in Toronto. “It matters when you elect people that don't believe in science and numbers. I think Ontario is getting a very harsh lesson in that.”
While the Ford government has reversed course on its policy decisions, Dwivedi described the situation unfolding in Ontario as “bonkers”, noting that restrictions enacted were never supported by the scientific advisory group. Since then, Ford and his government have been dragged online for wanting to give police more powers following a year of social justice movements, and cutting off access to green spaces for families who rely on public parks.
“This is precisely what happens in terms of not listening to the science and the expert advice that is given to a government,” she said.
Ontario's COVID-19 battle took a turn in February
For Dwivedi, the moment that stands out in advance of the disastrous third wave Ontario is when TVO reporter, John Michael McGrath asked Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, the co-chair of Ontario’s science advisory group if the data he was presenting was "predicting a disaster" in February. At the time, the province had announced they would be removing the stay-at-home order for most of the province, but the numbers showed an impending third wave. Brown responded McGrath correctly understood the data and things would be getting disastrous, but while the writing was on the wall, the Ford government still relaxed restrictions.
“We are at this point right now because the premier and the folks around him ignored expert advice. All of this was predicted and yet we're still here,” she said.
The shrinking confidence the Ford government is facing won’t go away anytime soon, according to Jamie Ellerton, Principal at Conaptus Public Relations. The former Conservative Party senior staffer and strategist thinks its “undeniable” that the Ontario PC party has had a tough week to say the least. He noted that in his years working in politics, he’s never seen such a united and visceral response to a policy decision like what occurred last Friday.
“There's not going to be a quick fix, there’s not going to be a galvanizing pivot point where all of a sudden this goes away.”
Part of the problem around last Friday’s press conference starts around the delays and the press conference being pushed back. From there, it gets worse as Ellerton noted that dropping new restrictions on a Friday out of the blue without data or specifics to back up, likely caused frustrations to go over the tipping point. He pointed to Peel Region and Toronto where residents have been in lockdown for nearly four months and there is growing apathy for the government.
“Voters are tired, they're tired of politicians talking about the effort that they're putting in thirteen months into this, they’re looking for impact, they want results.”
When it comes to an overview of the pandemic, whether its Chief Medical Officer of Health for the province of Ontario, Dr. David Williams, Health Minister Christine Elliot or the premier himself, Ellerton has not seen a clear vision of what they’re trying to achieve.
“There's this tendency in politics to have to fight the battle of the day and just get through to the next one, without any kind of foresight as to where you're going and what you're trying to achieve,” he said.
What the Ontario government needs to do now
When asked what advice Dwivedi would impart on the premier if asked, she said her advice would be centred around listening to the experts in the room and those who are people best prepared to handle a pandemic.
“Listen to the Science Advisory Table, listen to the clinicians on the ground,” she said.
Given that Ontarians of all stripes were united in their rebuke of increasing police powers and the premier was absent from the public eye for a couple of days as an aide tested positive for COVID-19, calls for his resignation have started to grow. Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has called for Ford to step down, but Dwivedi thinks it’s not just external pressure the premier needs to be concerned about.
“I think the bigger issue for the premier right now is probably coming from within his own caucus. I can't imagine what some of those meetings would have been like,” said Dwivedi.
Even if Ford does survive the next few weeks and lasts until the next election, Dwivedi thinks it will be hard for Ontarians to move past what’s occurred during the third wave.
“I would like to hope that the general public remembers this and were cognizant of the fact that we were basically leaderless during a pandemic and a lot of the policy decisions made by this premier and his government worsened the crisis we were already in,” she said.
According to Dwivedi, the power is in the hands of Ontarians to fire a government come election time, and from her perspective, the proof is in the pudding about how the premier and his government have bungled the pandemic.
“If this isn't a fireable offense, I’m not sure what is,” she said.
Ontario's opposition may have a chance to swoop in over Ford's issues
If the public does remove the Ontario PC Party from power, one of the opposition parties need to take grasp of the situation unfolding and vault themselves up.
“His opponents need to be doing everything they can to ensure that they’re getting help to the people of Ontario. They need to hold the government to account, but ensure those on the frontlines are taken care,” said Dwivedi.
For Dwivedi, that person has been Steven Del Duca and the Liberal Party so far, but she said that Greens’ Leader Mike Schreiner has been the most impressive opposition thus far.
“I think he's the most consistent off of all the opposition leaders right now in not only holding the government to account, but also in the policies and issues he brings forward,” said Dwivedi.
Ellerton, while he didn’t single opposition leader out as breaking away, thinks the Ontario NDP and leader Andrea Horwath have struggled to get clear messaging out to the public. He admitted that instead of being on the attack during the pandemic, they could be better served by speaking to health experts and giving them a louder voice. Horwarth has pushed bills to get paid sick days for workers, but the Ford government has consistently blocked the motions.
“If you're an opposition party, wanting to show that you're a government in waiting, talk to experts, suggest constructive policy solutions,” said Ellerton.
When it comes down to governing during the pandemic, to Ellerton it's simple, you cannot listen to the voices screaming on the outside and allow them to dictate your policy. Instead, there needs to be clear communication and a long-term strategy, and a will to power through the criticism.
“I think the public wants consistency and so it might mean you're going to be unpopular on a day-to-day basis, but if you're constantly changing your mind and reacting to politics rather than to health and science — it becomes a crisis of confidence,” said Ellerton.