Adjusting to Doug Ford’s Ontario
By Chad Ingram
Published Nov. 27, 2018
When it comes to navigating the political landscape under Premier Doug Ford, Ontario municipalities should expect the unexpected, says David O’Brien.
O’Brien, whose career consisted of a number of high-level municipal administrative positions including city manager of Mississauga, was the guest speaker at a Nov. 15 event hosted by the Haliburton Highlands chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women entitled Reinventing Local Government – The Doug Ford Way.
“I’m not going to castigate Premier Ford, and I’m not going to castigate any of his ministers, or anything like that,” O’Brien told a crowd in the great hall at the Haliburton Fleming College campus.
“We have to be prepared for a decision-making process dramatically different than we’ve had in the last 15 years, and I mean dramatically different,” said O’Brien, now a resident of Wilberforce. “This will be a government that will begin to systematically dismantle much of what has been done in the past.”
Since coming to power in the spring, Ford’s majority government has already walked back, or announced plans to walk back, a number of programs and initiatives instituted under the Wynne and McGuinty Liberal governments. These include but are not limited to the cancellation of the province’s cap and trade system (which, as O’Brien pointed out, led to the cancellation of a bioheat project in Haliburton Village that had received $3 million in funding), the cancellation of the basic income pilot project, and changes to social services.
O’Brien, who emphasized that Ford and his government have been democratically elected to fulfill their mandate, pointed to what essentially amounted to lack of a policy platform by the PCs during the spring election.
“We give them the right to exercise their platform,” he said. “Some would argue, and some of that argument has some legitimacy to it, that the current provincial government may not have defined their platform as clearly as other platforms have been defined in elections.”
“So we are, to a large extent, developing a platform as we govern in this province,” O’Brien said, adding this would have myriad implications as the consequences of decisions made broadly across the province come to light in local manifestations – such as the cancellation of the Dysart bioheat project.
“What do you expect?” he said. “Expect the unexpected. Expect changes to the way we have traditionally done business in this province. Expect new things to come that we thought would never happen in this province.”
O’Brien said the Ford government would be one that prioritizes business over government.
“Mr. Ford is a gentleman who is not a fan of government, and he has said that, I’m not making that statement,” he said. “He’s a person who has very strong opinions about municipal government. Don’t forget, he was a councillor in Toronto. Don’t forget who his brother was. Don’t forget the struggles he had and his brother had in the municipal sector in Toronto. There’s all kinds of things that are sort of boiling behind the scenes that I think we haven’t seen yet.”
A manoeuvre by the Ford government that drew much attention and criticism was its forced, near halving of the size of Toronto city council earlier this year, during a municipal election campaign.
O’Brien spoke of “two Ontarios” – rural Ontario and urban Ontario, their very different needs in terms of provincial support, and how it can often be difficult for smaller, rural municipalities to compete for provincial attention, and dollars, with larger, prosperity-driving urban municipalities.
He pointed to ongoing local challenges, such as poor internet and cellular connectivity and reliance on a seasonal economy.
“We’re going to have to really rattle the cage hard, and make all kinds of noise about us, up here, and how we’re going to need their help to continue,” O’Brien said. He said that it’s important for municipalities to have the ears of cabinet ministers as much as possible, appearing before them as often as possible.
Longtime Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott is a member of Ford’s cabinet, and is the province’s labour minister. It’s the first time she’s sat on the government side of Queen’s Park, after more than a decade of serving as an Opposition MPP. O’Brien said Scott’s new position brings its own unique challenges.
“Laurie’s in a difficult position,” he said. “For the first time in her life, she’s a cabinet minister. And, on the surface, you would say to yourself, that’s a really good thing. And it is.”
However, a complication, O’Brien said, is the rule of cabinet solidarity. “You stick together when a decision’s been made . . . And we really have to help her to be successful, because she’s going to have a tough haul of it, trying to get things for us, at the same time as she is trying to maintain cabinet solidarity.”