SPIRIT OF 76 – It’s been a long time since Ontario’s Tories were in a celebratory mood at Queen’s Park, but that was certainly the case this week as Premier-designate Doug Ford convened the first meeting of his 76-member caucus. The sheer size of the gathering – the largest single caucus for any party since the previous PC government reduced the overall number of seats in the Assembly in 1999 – added to the feeling of jubilation, although at the same time it was a sobering tableau of the multitude of interests and egos that will need to be managed. For now, all seem content to go about getting organized to form government (and, for the 50 rookie MPPs, even more basics like learning the layout of the building) and tackling the mountains of paperwork that come with starting the job. Offices are now being assigned, which is always a thorny task given the aforementioned egos – as in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location – but many will be temporary anyway, with new addresses allocated when cabinet minister and parliamentary assistant roles are doled out in late June and early July. The massive process of staffing up is also underway, with hundreds of applications pouring in from would-be political aides.
SELECTIVE SERVICE – One of Ford’s first moves after setting up shop was obvious, but nonetheless sent a chill through the civil service. Many in the bureaucracy were already stressed, scrambling to prepare briefing notes and bracing for the upheaval of a change in government. Then came the memo from Cabinet Secretary Steve Orsini, advising that until further notice public servants are in “caretaker” mode. That’s the actual word Orsini used in the directive issued to Deputy Ministers this week, telling senior bureaucrats that “only routine or very urgent business” should be conducted – in essence extending the hibernation of the election period – until the new government’s “expenditure management strategy” is in place. (Read: Ford’s team gets a look at the books.) Orsini’s memo also outlines additional spending restrictions – again routine for a transition but intensified by recognition of the Ford administration’s commitment to finding “efficiencies.” (Orsini’s memo doesn’t specifically use that word, but it is a looming subtext.) Among the measures now in place are freezes on non-essential hiring and discretionary spending, curtailing international travel, cancellation of all paper-based newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and a ban on food at internal staff meetings. (Ford, according to his staff, personally bought the pizza for his caucus.)
BELLWETHER – Technically, civil servants are non-partisan, but they do have their own philosophies and priorities, which don’t necessarily align with the government of the day. When the government of the day changes, it inevitably signals movement at the very top of the administrative food chain. This has already started, with word that Deputy Health Minister Bob Bell is leaving – reportedly not directly because of the new regime coming in, but in recognition that if he isn’t planning to be around for the long-haul it’s better to get out in the early stages of the new government. A massive reshuffling of deputies is expected to follow.
CAP HIT – Aside from putting a clamp on the civil service, Ford also took an aggressive policy step, announcing that his government’s first order of business will be to cancel Ontario’s cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions. As one of his few hardcore platform planks, this will come as no surprise, and Ford took the opportunity to repeat his election campaign rhetoric. “After 15 years of being gouged at the pumps, gouged by high taxes and cap-and-trade, the people of Ontario want relief,” he thundered. While there are still question marks around how he will unscramble the egg – Ford has committed $30 million to fighting a legal battle against a federal carbon tax filling the void, and acknowledged that companies who have purchased credits under the cap-and-trade system will need to be compensated – he was adamant that this policy will proceed. “In Ontario, the carbon taxes’ days are numbered … They’re gone, they’re done,” he declared. Following these remarks, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns had the distinction of making his party’s first public policy comment as the Official Opposition, chiding, “It was totally vague. He didn’t answer any substantial questions.” First-ever Green Party MPP Mike Schreiner also got his inaugural digs in, offering, “It is unfortunate to see Mr. Ford’s sloganeering and back-of-the-napkin ideas continuing post-election.”
FOR THE RECORD
“We look after you from birth to death and everything in between. Everything you can imagine that affects your life is included in this freeze. I hope it doesn’t go on forever… Not filling a job is the same as a cut.”
OPSEU President Wayne “Smokey” Thomas, not thrilled with the hiring freeze imposed on the public service, nor the prospect of the long-term thinning of government ranks through attrition.
“We spent approximately $10 million to get seven seats. I think Liberals want an answer in that regard. They want us to take a look at the campaign and pre-campaign and look at where we made mistakes.”
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser, admitting that the party has some “soul-searching” to do as it looks to rebuild after its election debacle.
“Doug Ford is my guy and I am telling you is going to be a great Premier. I think he is going to be so good, that he will one day be Prime Minister of Canada, too.”
Hockey legend Don Cherry, effusive in his praise of the Premier-designate. When asked if Cherry will be at the new government’s swearing-in on June 29, Ford said, “I sure hope so. He is being invited, no question.” (Notably, when Cherry attended the swearing-in of Doug’s late brother Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto in 2010, he stole the show with his quote, “I’m wearing pink for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything. Put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks.”)