The smiles from Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his friendly bantering with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the pair met on Parliament Hill last week were in no way just an act for the cameras.
It was a sharp change for Canada’s two most powerful politicians, who spent much of the past 18 months as each other’s political targets. Trudeau invoked Ford’s name on the campaign trail so often that jokes were made about who he was actually running against. Last year, Ford was openly calling for Trudeau’s defeat.
The prime minister and the premier have now seemingly buried the hatchet and moved on. Each has motivations for wanting a more harmonious relationship now. Here’s what’s in it for Ford.
Ontario next goes to the polls in June 2022, and much of Ford’s re-election hopes will hinge on showing progress toward solving the Toronto area’s transit problem.
He cannot build his grand vision for new subway lines without the federal government on board. During the campaign, Trudeau promised federal funding for the projects. Attacking Trudeau would not encourage the money to flow.
Ford could also do with some federal help to keep another of his key campaign pledges: ending what has been called the hallway health-care problem. He named health as one of the main topics of his meeting with Trudeau last Friday.
“I think the premier genuinely believes a lot of his remaining priorities in this mandate rely on his ability to work with the prime minister,” says Ginny Roth, a senior executive with government relations firm Crestview Strategy and a longtime Progressive Conservative insider.
Rehabilitating his image
Ford spent his first year in power in adversarial combat mode, seeming to emphasize campaigning over governing. It helped create a perception that he’s more a brawler than a premier, and that didn’t go so well for his polling numbers.
To change that perception, Ford needs to prove he’s a politician who gets things done. Working well with Trudeau can help him accomplish that rehab of his reputation.
Ford is seizing on a vein of public opinion that suggests “what Ontario voters want to see right now is somebody willing to work positively, rather than just to have wars of words over and over again,” says Kate Harrison, another PC party insider and a vice-president of Summa Strategies, a government relations firm.
The people now around Ford have helped the premier realize that portraying an aura of competence in governing is infinitely better than giving off an aura of chaos. It’s no coincidence this shift began with the departure of Ford’s original chief of staff — the combative and controversial Dean French — and the arrival of his replacement, James Wallace, by all accounts a more even-keeled manager.
Ford needs Trudeau voters
The results of the federal election in Ontario showed clearly that voters have not turned against Trudeau. Ontario sent 79 Liberal MPs to Ottawa last month: many of those federal Liberal voters helped send 76 Progressive Conservative MPPs to Queen’s Park just last year. Ford needs those people to stick with him in the next election, especially in the crucial 905 battleground, if he’s to hang on to his majority.
“Doug Ford is the ultimate pragmatist,” says Harrison. “He wants to be where public opinion is and where it’s going, and if that means working across parties to do it, then so be it.”
There’s simply no political upside right now for Ford to bash Trudeau and his newly re-elected Liberal government. That’s unlike his Alberta and Saskatchewan counterparts, Jason Kenney and Scott Moe, whose populations wholeheartedly rejected the Liberals.
Trudeau does not have many friends among the premiers. Ford has an opportunity to be his premier bestie right now. As someone who has a political affinity for Kenney and Moe, and gets along with Quebec Premier François Legault, Ford can act as a go-between for the PM and the fractious premiers, and score points for playing a peacemaker role.
Ford will have a chance to show that kind of national stature on Monday when he hosts the premiers in Mississauga for a post-election meeting of the Council of the Federation.
“He clearly is trying to position himself as a peace broker between some of the really angry western premiers and the prime minister and I think he has a real opportunity to do that,” says Roth.
Still, it means rising above the mud that Trudeau slung at him during the campaign, and taking the high road. It’s not an easy thing for the politically combative Ford to do, but he has proved he can.
“The prime minister was pretty aggressive in his remarks about the premier right up until election day and the premier never took the bait,” says Roth.
Trolling Andrew Scheer
The people around Andrew Scheer wanted Ford out of sight during the election campaign over fears the premier’s unpopularity would drag down the federal Conservative leader in Ontario. Ford kept his part of the bargain, and the Conservatives got badly beaten in this province anyway. Scheer’s team is still blaming their loss on Ford, so it’s to be expected Ford might be looking for a little payback.
For Ford, being chummy with Scheer’s chief opponent is a subtle yet rather sharp jab at the Conservative leader. You could understand why he might get a little satisfaction from using his new relationship with the PM to troll Scheer.
Ford and Scheer have not met face to face in a year. It’s a safe bet you’ll see far fewer smiles and handshakes shared between these two Conservatives in the foreseeable future than you’ll see between Ford and Trudeau, the newest and probably most unexpected BFFs in Canadian politics.