It hasn’t yet been a full year since Doug Ford was sworn in as Ontario’s 26th premier, but he’s already on his second cabinet shuffle. The first one, which took place in November, was a bit of housecleaning to which the media wasn’t invited. The second, announced Thursday, produced more dramatic results: some veteran MPPs have been demoted, some younger MPPs have been brought into the executive council, and some of the government’s most controversial portfolios will be guided by new hands. Here are the biggest changes from this week’s shake-up.
The rapid rise of Rod Phillips
The appointment of the former minister of environment, conservation and parks as the new minister of finance represents the biggest cabinet move. Phillips has replaced Vic Fedeli, whose spring budget has been causing trouble for the government — the premier evidently decided change was in order. Phillips’s political rise has been incredibly rapid: prior to 2018, he’d never held elected office; now, he’s arguably the second-most-important person in the Ontario government (and therefore one of the most important people in Canadian politics, too).
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Some of his previous work experience will serve him well in his new role: earlier this decade, he acted as president and CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, the provincial gambling monopoly that pours billions of dollars into Queen’s Park’s coffers. But he’ll be limited in terms of what he can do, at least in the short term: until he writes one of his own, Phillips will have to work with the same budget that has been causing the government so much grief.
Up-and-coming MPPs get some plum roles
A handful of MPPs from the class of 2018 are making their debuts. Stephen Lecce, until today the premier’s parliamentary assistant, is now responsible for one of the most powerful cabinet portfolios: education. That’s a big promotion for the King–Vaughan MPP and a potentially risky one: government contracts with the teachers’ unions are set to expire this fall, and the Tories will need to negotiate with them — which raises the real risk of widespread labour action by teachers should negotiations go badly. Barrie–Springwater–Oro-Medonte MPP Doug Downey has also gone from the backbench to a power ministry, replacing Caroline Mulroney as attorney general (Mulroney has moved to transportation). Mulroney was responsible for the legal challenge to the federal carbon tax; Downey will likely be responsible for shepherding this legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court.
Other new faces at the cabinet table include Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop and Brampton South MPP Prabmeet Sarkaria, both of whom have been handed associate-minister roles. Speaking of which…
What’s an “associate minister”?
Ford’s new cabinet will include a number of so-called associate ministers. They’re not a Tory invention — Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter was an associate minister of finance for a while under Kathleen Wynne, and she was tasked with helping move the government’s pension plan through the legislature. But while Wynne had one or two associate ministers at a time, Ford’s new cabinet will boast five: Sarkaria (Small business and Red Tape Reduction), Dunlop (Children and Women’s Issues), Kinga Surma (transportation for the Greater Toronto Area), Michael Tibollo (Mental Health and Addictions), and Bill Walker (Energy.)
These are issues that fall within the portfolios of existing ministers: the appointment of associate ministers suggests that the government wants to give them added focus. The government also broke up the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, dividing it between Christine Elliott and Merrilee Fullerton. Getting more long-term-care beds is an obvious priority for the government, but precisely because long-term care is so critical to getting people out of overcrowded hospitals — “ending hallway medicine,” as the government says — prior governments have put both files in the hands of one person.
Making Walker an “associate minister of energy” is also a curious move. The Tories folded energy in with northern development and mines under Greg Rickford last year: if the government has since had second thoughts, there’s ample precedent for simply making energy its own full ministry.
Will any of this matter?
I wrote earlier this week that a cabinet shuffle wouldn’t cure what ails the government: the Tories don’t have a communications problem; it’s their policy choices that are alienating voters. I still think that assessment is correct, although it’s true that the government could use this opportunity to pivot on policy, too. But pivot to what? Is the government going to adopt a less rigid plan for deficit reduction, one that would allow it to be more generous with such groups as the aforementioned teachers’ unions? Possibly. I’d be surprised, though, given that the Tories have been expressing anxiety about Ontario’s deficit and debts for years. They could also, conceivably, try to cultivate a more congenial relationship with municipalities — Toronto, in particular, where residents have been booing the premier loudly and repeatedly. But the minster of municipal affairs, Steve Clark, is one of the people who wasn’t shuffled today, which suggests that the government is happy with his performance so far.
There are all kinds of options that the Tories could pursue — and they’ll be able to mull them over during the long summer break.