Why a cabinet shuffle won’t cure what ails the Tories

OPINION: Queen’s Park is abuzz with rumours of an impending cabinet shuffle. But merely changing the faces around the table won’t change public opinion
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 18, 2019
The premier’s office was reportedly disappointed with the rollout of and reaction to the spring budget. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Governments in trouble always want to believe that they suffer from communications issues, even when their problems run deeper. The reason is pretty straightforward: we all like to think that we’re the heroes of our own stories, and it’s more reassuring to say, “We’ve got a good story; we just aren’t telling it well” than it is to ask, “Are we the baddies?”

As Queen’s Park buzzes with rumours of an impending cabinet shuffle, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government seems to be going with the more reassuring narrative. The Toronto Star reported last week that the premier’s office was disappointed with the rollout of the spring budget, which has led to the government’s getting hammered repeatedly on piecemeal cuts. “Communications has not been up to par,” government house leader Todd Smith told the Globe and Mail. “I mean, we can certainly get better at that.”

Government MPPs and their staffers can argue about whether the Tories would be in a better position if all the cuts flowing from the budget had been announced at once — if the Band-Aid had been ripped off instead of slowly peeled away — but the notion that the PCs’ problems are primarily due to communications is magical thinking.

Finance Minister Vic Fedeli brought his fiscal plan to cabinet and got the approval of the premier before making any final moves. Ford and his ministers collectively decided to hold overall spending nearly level this year and to increase health and education spending modestly while making cuts elsewhere. (The premier’s office almost certainly made the decision, with cabinet simply affirming it.) The events of the past several weeks have all stemmed from that decision — they weren’t simply PR oversights.

The math can’t be ignored, and its results were totally predictable. The government’s choices have meant that dozens of groups, big and small, have seen consequential cuts to their budgets. (Some of those cuts may be grounded purely in economics, and some may not: at first glance, the cuts to legal-aid clinics look like a repeat performance of the 2006 decision by the federal Conservatives to gut the Court Challenges Program.)

Did the government think that it could cut tens of millions of dollars from the budgets of diverse groups — many of which know the phone numbers for reporters at major print and TV outlets — and not get significant pushback? And do the Tories actually think that changing the faces around the cabinet table will make those kinds of cuts less disruptive?

It would be one thing if the Tories could claim that voters had given them an unambiguous mandate to make the cuts their fiscal plan requires. But, of course, they can’t. Ford repeatedly told voters — most notably, during the televised leaders debate — that nobody would lose their jobs and that front-line services would not be affected by his party’s spending restraint. The PC party promised voters that it could balance the budget painlessly, even though it was also promising to throw away whole categories of revenue (carbon pricing) and to accept accounting recommendations from the auditor general that effectively made the deficit worse.

Actions have consequences. The Tories won the election by selling voters on a fairy tale. Now, they have to face reality, and it isn’t pretty. The party hasn’t been unambiguously in the lead in an opinion poll since January, and several recent polls show the Liberals back in contention, even though they don’t have a permanent leader.

And Tory MPPs who are hoping that they can push the reset button later this year when they return to Queen’s Park (after the federal election) may want to re-read this year’s budget: next year, total program spending (that is, everything except debt service) is set to increase by only $1.8 billion. That’s more than this year’s increase ($100 million), to be sure, but half of it will go to growing health-care costs. The government’s stated plan for 2020-21, then, will still mean real cuts across the broader public sector and more howls from groups forced to reduce service and lay off employees.

When people who feel harmed by the government’s choices complain in public about them, that’s not the result of a “communications problem” — it’s a natural consequence of those choices. The Tories have a couple of options: they can make different choices, or they can stay the course and hope that the province’s finances will be rosy enough by spring 2022 that they’ll be able to bring forward a comparatively generous budget, one that will allow voters in the next election to forgive and forget.

The idea that changing the faces around the cabinet table will solve the government’s problems has about as much grounding in reality as Tinker Bell. But it wouldn’t be the first time that MPPs at Queen’s Park have been told they need to clap harder.

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