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Doug Ford Flip-Flops Again. It's Getting Tiresome.
It's good when a government changes course and adopts better policy—up to a point.
On Monday, the Walrus published a long read I wrote for them on the many sins of the Doug Ford government in Ontario. I detailed how we ended up with Ford and why we might be stuck with him and his wretched lot. It’s sad stuff. I didn’t have space to run down every last Ford failure of the last five years or so, since the Internet only has so many servers. But I included the greatest hits. I’ve said it before: Ford is unfit to govern. His crew is a sad, pathetic mess. Indeed, they’re so wretched that we’ve now reached the point that even when they eventually do the right thing, it’s a liability and likely to be met with cynicism.
The same day the Walrus piece came out, housing minister Paul Calandra announced the government was reversing course on municipal boundary changes in a dozen cities across the province. For some time, municipalities, experts, and activists have criticized the government’s move as unnecessary, warning that the boundaries would contribute to costly, environmentally damaging sprawl. The Ford government rushed changes it claimed were necessary to build housing and hit its targets. Of course, that wasn’t true.
The Ford government isn’t exactly adept at listening and carefully pursuing an inclusive process that produces high-quality policy. It prefers to govern from the top down and from shady backrooms. Discussing the boundary flip-flop, which came about during a program review, Calandra noted the initial decision to expand boundaries had “too much involvement from the minister's office, too much involvement from individuals in the minister's office.” You don’t say.
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For years, I have argued that when a government gets something wrong, recognizes their mistake, and changes course, we ought to celebrate that. No government is perfect. Every government makes mistakes. Accepting that you’ve made a mistake and correcting that is good, and we ought to encourage that in politics and reward politicians for doing the right thing — eventually. At least up to a point.
When all you do is flip-flop, you lose the benefit of the doubt and the grace of acceptance of your errors. Doug Ford’s government routinely reverses course because it is incompetent and incapable of governing; it is too unskilled and too easily swayed by the powerful and connected; it operates as if there is neither thought nor process behind its decisions beyond ideological memory and the influence of the last whispers of well-connected lobbyists. That lack of process leads to poor, sloppy decisions and outrage, and to constant course corrections. Moreover, given how dodgy the Ford government is, it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of these changes are driven by concerns about bad press or forthcoming scandals that will further bury it.
At some point you’d think a government would learn from its mistakes. It would find better people. It would listen more. It would adopt better protocols and processes. And yet, after half a decade in power, Ford’s government still making the same mistakes it made when it was just getting started.
The municipal boundary walk-backs was the latest costly reversal by the Ford government, but there have been many. Indeed, as Gabe Deroche wrote for Maclean’s back in 2018, the flip-flops started with Ford’s first campaign. Since then, Ford’s side has changed its mind several times: on developing the Greenbelt (the first time), developing the Greenbelt (the second time), social services and autism care, pandemic restrictions, vaccine passports, using the notwithstanding clause against workers, transit, class sizes, and more.
Again, it’s welcome when a government changes its mind and adopts a good policy or abandons/amends a bad one. But it’s bad when it ceaselessly has to do so because it can’t govern. Policy lurch and unpredictability has a cost. Constant changes make it hard to plan or to know what precisely the law is or will be. That makes it hard to build houses or plan a classroom. Constant policy changes also cost time, money, and energy — both the government’s and that of citizens/civil society/professionals who take part in the process of standing up policy or resisting it. Constant reversals also undermine confidence in the capacity of the government to get things right.
Governments that operate in good faith deserve the benefit of the doubt when they make a mistake and seek to correct it. Doug Ford’s government does not operate in good faith. It deserves nothing from us but distrust, opprobrium, and resistance.