Doug Ford's handling of the pandemic draws praise from friends and foes

TORONTO — No aspect of Canadian life has been left untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic, including politics, and pundits agree the premier of Ontario is one of those most transformed by the outbreak.

Doug Ford, a divisive player on the regional stage long before becoming an equally polarizing national figure, has been turning heads since it became clear that Canada would not be spared the spread of the novel coronavirus. But many of those heads, once likely to be thrown back in dismay, are now bestowing nods of approval.

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Gone is the pugnacious partisanship and populist rhetoric that opponents once used to compare Ford to U.S. President Donald Trump. The premier's regular briefings have instead drawn widespread plaudits for their calm, collegial tone as well as their comparatively progressive content.

Such an approach, political observers say, differs not only from that demonstrated by like-minded politicians south of the border but from his own past conduct.

"I'm a Liberal, but I'll give Doug Ford a lot of credit — he's handling this really well," said Dan Moulton, vice-president at Crestview Strategy and former senior staff member in the previous Liberal government. "He's being transparent, responsive, engaging. Ontarians are really seeing him in action."

Praise from the centre or left of the spectrum has been rare through Ford's unorthodox and colourful political career.

During his time as Toronto city councillor, Ford drew heavily on his experience running the family label-making business and his well-honed populist instincts to carve out a reputation for staunch conservatism and straight talk.

Those traits remained on full display when he became premier in June 2018 and throughout a tumultuous first year in office that saw his Progressive Conservative government reverse course on a host of core policies and promises.

Ford was rarely conciliatory, whether discussing hydro rates, environmental policy or labour negotiations with Ontario teachers.

He arbitrarily slashed the size of Toronto city council half-way through a municipal election campaign, then threatened to invoke the rarely used notwithstanding clause to overturn a court decision that found his actions unconstitutional. The case will now be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.

He led a coalition of provincial premiers who took the federal government to court over its carbon tax and rarely missed an opportunity to level partisan broadsides at real or perceived political foes.

All that changed earlier this month, and Ford's near-daily public appearances during the COVID-19 crisis have been free from political attacks.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Ford said unprecedented times called for a fresh approach.

"We put differences aside and we moved together because people expect that," Ford said of his current, friendly relationship with federal and municipal officials.

Ford's reference to the will of the people is more familiar to political analysts, as is the clear communication style that's characterized most of his speeches since the pandemic took hold and prompted him to be among the first provincial leaders to declare a state of emergency.

Political communications consultant Tim Abray said clear messaging has long been one of Ford's political strengths, noting that aspect of his performance to date has not come as a surprise.

More striking, he said, has been Ford's willingness to give equal prominence to credible scientists and public health officials, ensuring reliable information is readily available in one of the provinces hardest hit by the outbreak.

Moulton agreed, crediting Ford for showcasing some of his strongest cabinet performers during a slew of multibillion-dollar spending announcements made to safeguard the province during the pandemic.

Some trademark measures remain, such as significant corporate tax breaks, and Ford's populist appeal was on full display during a recent, impassioned rant against a high-end store selling disinfectant wipes for $30.

But the new announcements have also included measures that depart radically from his government's usual agenda, such as boosting income for some poor residents and jettisoning the party's oft-stated goal of balancing the province's books.

The approach has not gone unnoticed, even drawing praise from traditional political adversaries well outside of Ontario.

"While I can’t say I have historically been a fan of (at)fordnation, I have to say he is doing an incredible job on the COVID-19 file," wrote B.C. Green party Leader Andrew Weaver on Twitter. "He has shown strong, decisive and compassionate leadership at a critical moment in Ontario's history."

Such praise marks a reversal for Ford, whose popularity had plummeted to new lows in the months preceding the outbreak.

"The main thing that has been driving the animosity around this government is an apparent lack, during normal times, of the ability to listen to non-aligned voices," Abray said, noting Ford has previously demonstrated an ability to adjust his position in the face of new information. "What I think he's done is he's stepped up and is behaving more like Doug Ford the person rather than Doug Ford the partisan Tory."

Ford, for his part, said the experience of steering Ontario through the pandemic has produced lessons that will be applied once the crisis passes.

"There are so many things that we can agree on," he said "There's so much opportunity for governments to get a lot more done if we all work together."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect last name for Dan Moulton.

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