'Protect the king': Why Ontario Premier Doug Ford has taken the back seat
TORONTO -- Premier Doug Ford’s notable absence from the public eye over the past few weeks is part of an effort to protect him from negative pandemic news and rehabilitate his image, CTV News Toronto has learned, after the government suffered severe blowback from recent third wave decisions.
Multiple sources, speaking confidentially to discuss internal strategic thinking, say the Premier’s Office has been looking to change the channel on Ford’s pandemic faults by allowing ministers and public health officials to “wear” the decisions that they make or recommend.
The effort has led to scant appearances from a premier who had captured the public’s attention throughout the pandemic with months of daily news conferences long after his federal and provincial counterparts had pulled back on their public announcements.
While sources say the goal has always been to ensure Ford is less exposed to COVID-19-related controversy, the April 16 news conference – in which the government gave police sweeping new enforcement powers and closed play grounds – seems to have given Ford’s office the path to pull back.
The government faced a firestorm of criticism for those decisions and was quickly forced to backtrack, but not before damaging its reputation in public opinion polls.
“The whole world went upside down on us,” one source confided, pointing to negative public opinion polling in the aftermath of the decisions.
A recent poll by Innovative Research, conducted in the wake of the controversy, found 76 per cent of respondents said they were aware of something the premier had said or done and 48 per cent admitted to having a less favourable impression of Ford.
“There was a realization to protect the king,” another Progressive Conservative insider said, suggesting the premier might be knocked down to a single news conference or appearance per week.
In fact, since the April 16 news conference Ford has made a total four public appearances -- two were at news conferences in May, while the premier was in isolation after a COVID-19 exposure, and two were at Question Period at Queen’s Park.
Ford, however, was absent from two key news conferences this week – including one related to a federal funding announcement to build four transit lines the premier has championed for two years – and isn’t scheduled to hold another news conference in the near future.
“As always, we will issue an advisory when the premier has a press conference,” spokesperson Ivana Yelich told CTV News Toronto in a statement.
While those close to the premier insist there is no concerted effort and that he has been in back-to-back meetings, briefings and virtual announcements, other sources concede there is a “shift” in strategy to avoid having the premier deliver daily pandemic news.
“Nobody has taken any accountability, Doug Ford has worn it all,” a source said.
Another source indicated that every day the premier is out of the public eye, his poll numbers move in a favourable direction.
Critics of the government say, however, that the shift in strategy means the premier is in seclusion and say Ford has a responsibility to report to the public during a pandemic.
“There is a need for the premier to be out. It’s clearly been demonstrated over the last year. He's been out almost every day, very accessible, very visible,” said Liberal MPP John Fraser.
“But the moment the heat is on, the moment there's criticism, he backs off and can’t answer the questions.”
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said while the premier doesn’t need to be available to the public every day, he should show leadership.
“He's hit some rocky waters and instead of steering us through them, he's gone into hiding,” Schreiner said.
PC insiders suggest, however, that the premier can be “forceful” when he wants to hold a news conference and say it took a “herculean effort” to prevent him from speaking out during the last federal election campaign when the Trudeau Liberals made Ford the focus.
“The premier goes stir crazy,” one source said, while another cautioned that’s when “things go astray.”
Ford is set to hold a news conference at 12 p.m. on Thursday.