VICTORIA — Premier Doug Ford doesn’t want to weigh in on the current federal Conservative leadership race — but Canada’s most powerful Tory does have a blueprint for winning elections.
After the June 2 campaign that saw his Ontario PC Party boost its seats in the legislature — 83 compared to 76 in the 2018 election — Ford said it was in part his government’s cautious approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that reassured weary voters.
And in his first in-depth interview since the election, Ford — who sat down with the Star in British Columbia, where he was attending the Council of the Federation summer meeting with his 12 provincial and territorial counterparts — also attributed his victory to a combination of hard work and “a very disciplined and structured campaign with great candidates across the province.”
He said “the message to the people — we had a message of ‘Yes, we’re moving forward.’ We’re going to be building hospitals and schools and bridges and roads and highways that the opposition will say, ‘No, we’re never going to be doing that.’ So people had a clear choice and they made that decision.”
Ford said he believed his play-it-safe approach during the pandemic — locking down businesses before vaccines were widespread, mandating Tory MPPs to get vaccinated, and keeping schools closed longer than anywhere else — helped seal his re-election.
His cautious pandemic position is a sharp contrast to that taken by departing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, and the rhetoric of two federal Tory leadership hopefuls: Pierre Poilievre, who supported the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests Ford opposed, and Roman Baber, who was ejected from the Ontario PC caucus for questioning lockdown measures.
“A tremendous amount of people said, ‘I’ve never voted PC in my life, but I’m voting for you because of the way you handled the pandemic.’ I’m very grateful — but it wasn’t about me,” Ford said.
“You know who should be getting all the votes? All the front-line health-care workers, being the doctors or the nurses, the businesses that came together when we were in desperate need of the PPE and we had manufacturers making face masks and other manufacturers changing over to gowns and face shields and the beverage companies making hand sanitizer.
“It was an incredible team Ontario effort by everyone — and everyone pitched in. I’m just so grateful. I played the smallest part — everyone else, 15 million people, all helped out.”
Ford’s advisers — as well as campaign chiefs for rival political parties — have said that his appeal was underestimated, and that the public didn’t blame the premier for missteps during the pandemic such as random police checks of drivers and pedestrians, and the closing of playgrounds.
The premier told the Star he “will never take that (support) for granted. We’re going to work extremely hard.”
He said he told the other premiers at the meeting in Victoria this week that “we’re coming back to the legislature in August and they all looked at me and said, ‘You gotta be kidding,’” especially given the largely ineffective air conditioning at Queen’s Park.
“They said, ‘Why aren’t you waiting until September?’ It’s because we have a heavy agenda that we have to move forward, that we promised the people of Ontario, and we have to get to work.”
The government has yet to pass its budget — which served as the party’s campaign platform for the election — and has teacher negotiations to hammer out given contracts for all school workers expire at the end of August.
Ford has already signalled that given rising inflation, teachers and nurses — whose talks will start up next spring — will be in for raises, after legislation limited wage hikes to one per cent a year for public servants.
The last round of talks with teachers proved highly contentious, with work-to-rule action and rolling strikes across the province that lasted into the start of the pandemic. And it’s unlikely that this time around teachers will see salary increases as high as inflation.
“We’re going to work very fairly with all unions across the board,” Ford said. “I have confidence that Education Minister Stephen Lecce will be able to strike a deal with the teachers.”
However, he added, “we draw the line in the sand — and not just us. I think parents want their kids back in school with extracurriculars” this fall after two years of interruptions in their education because of the pandemic.
“We need that to happen and hopefully, the unions will negotiate fairly with us.”
The union representing Ontario’s high school teachers has previously told the Star members will be free to resume extracurriculars, which are voluntary and will remain so, should they wish to in September.
Ford said the budget will also pass next month, with an increase to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and the government will also be working with Ottawa to try and boost the number of newcomers with needed skills coming to the province to help with job shortages in health care, trades and the technology sector.
The labour shortage was one issue he raised at the meeting with other premiers, given Ontario has 378,000 unfilled jobs. And Ford said the time to process newcomers is also too long, at more than two years.
“If we don’t fill those positions, (employers) will go other places,” he said. “We are in a world economy right now, and that would hurt our GDP, hurt our economic growth and also the finances going up to the coffers at Queen’s Park to pay for health, to pay for education. So it’s very important that we work hand-in-hand with the federal government.”
As for health care, all 13 premiers urged Ottawa to sit down with them to negotiate an increase to the health-care transfers, though the federal government questioned their numbers and insisted it already funds about one-third of their costs.
Opposition critics say Ontario already spends less than other provinces and territories on health care and urged Ford to not only fight for increased federal health transfers, but commit to spending more in health.
Interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns said, “Our hospitals are in crisis. We don’t have enough staff to keep all ERs open around the clock. Patients are waiting in pain for far too long while exhausted health-care workers are run off their feet and leaving in droves.”
As for the federal Conservative leadership, Ford said he’s not getting involved.
“I haven’t communicated with any of them,” said Ford, adding that while he is proud to be the leader of the Ontario PCs, he attracts voters from all parties so “I”m not a big partisan person.”
“I’m not getting involved in the federal (leadership) election,” he added.
“I have my hands full here in Ontario, and I’m going to focus on that.”
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