Opinion | For Doug Ford, no amount of shuffling can change a losing hand

After three years of self-destruction, the reconstruction of Doug Ford’s cabinet is an attempt to put his best face forward before he next faces voters in barely 12 months.

It is his last chance for a pre-election relaunch, rebirth or rebranding. It may be best remembered as the reboot before his government got the boot.

Ford eyeballed his weakest ministers — virtually — and reshuffled them with an eye to re-election. Pity the premier didn’t look himself in the mirror, for no amount of shuffling the deck can shift the onus from the player stuck with a losing hand.

In every government’s bag of tricks, the pre-election realignment is an old standby — and stand-in — for renewal. Ford’s Tories are trying desperately to pull a jackrabbit out of a hat — Rod Phillips — while trying to make the other cabinet dead ducks magically disappear.

In hopes of a post-pandemic revival — harnessing the double happiness voters feel upon being double-vaxed — the premier is desperate to repurpose himself and recast his cabinet. And so, on a Friday filled with storm clouds, the premier unveiled his big reveal and waited for the sun to come out.

Other than a refurbished Phillips — who self-immolated in mid-pandemic — this is a recycling of retreads that won’t revive anyone in a moribund government. The enduring news in this shuffle is the return of the long-lost Phillips.

It may not be popular to say so, but the rehabilitation of the fallen finance minister is the one glimmer of good news for a beleaguered government. Phillips was the brains behind Ford’s Tories until he lost his mind (and his job) in a moment of temporary insanity last December — beaching himself amid COVID-19 on a Caribbean hideaway while the rest of us were homebound and moribund.

Let us not now be hidebound. Whatever one thinks of this government, whose democratic mandate extends until mid-2022, Ontarians are better off with Phillips lending a hand in a leaky tent — propping it up where possible — than with him sitting out the pandemic in the purgatory of the penalty box, flagellated by unforgiving voters and demonized by a moralizing media.

His daunting new assignment as minister of long term care may be a death sentence in itself, or it may be the road to his redemption for a politician now blessed with more humility and less hubris. Ford knows and Lord knows we need a miracle in that ministry to make up for the blind spots that burdened his predecessor, Dr. Merilee Fullerton, the MD mercifully and belatedly relieved of her responsibilities.

It is easily forgotten that Fullerton’s first failure was her short-lived tenure as minister of colleges and universities. Now the good doctor has been consigned to the ministry of social services, the better to learn (at last) the art of serving voters.

Her unsuccessful successor in post-secondary education was Ross Romano, who is being put out to pasture in the portfolio of government services. Jill Dunlop, a thoughtful politician who graduated from Western and values higher learning, cannot fail to learn from their mistakes.

The shuffle will not slow the political death spiral of Stephen Lecce, the education minister who remains stuck in his portfolio even though his relations with teachers have become so toxic they have targeted him for defeat in the upcoming election. The much-loathed Lecce is not going anywhere for now — unless he bails from the sinking ship by bolting to the federal Conservatives.

Nor will this limited surgery stanch the bleeding of Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, who showed early promise only to become infatuated with his own infallibility — invoking Minister’s Zoning Orders with the unchecked zeal of an Ottoman pasha. Clark should have been shuffled but somehow survived, wounded by a love of MZOs that has left him increasingly politically compromised.

The five old warhorses purged from cabinet were the dispensable ones, but not necessarily the most identifiable duds (name recognition being unrecognizable for most of Ford’s ministerial minions). It can truly be said that with the exception of Phillips and precious few others, this is one of the weakest cabinets — top to bottom, post to post — in recent Ontario history.

The cabinet’s jovial political fixer Todd Smith has been slotted into energy, displacing Greg Rickford from a portfolio he messed up by mouthing off, so energized and intoxicated was he by the sound of his own voice. Let us hope he learns the art of listening to others as he retains the portfolio of Indigenous affairs in difficult times.

In fairness, a few new faces may serve cabinet well: Stan Cho, Parm Gill and Nina Tangri. Prabmeet Sarkaria, previously responsible for small business, now promoted to oversee big government as president of the Treasury Board, has growth potential.

This is not so much a bad shuffle as it is trying to make the best of a bad lot. The musical chairs will not soon soften the death march for a premier with few cards left to play.



These are the people the premier wants behind him when he goes to the people for a renewed mandate on June 2, 2022. But front and centre, for better or for worse, Ford will still be the face of the Progressive Conservatives when the ballots are cast and the votes are counted.

We have now seen the realignment of responsibilities, in hopes of a political resurrection. First, however, comes the reckoning.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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