Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Thursday demoted several top ministers, who struggled to sell contentious parts of his government’s first-year agenda, in a major reshuffle that makes his cabinet larger than Toronto’s city council.
Most notably among those demoted, Vic Fedeli, who was pushed out of the finance portfolio.
The shuffle was announced after weeks of negative headlines highlighting cuts to public programs and services unveiled in Fedeli's first and only budget tabled less than three months ago.
The shakeup also comes amid polling that shows Ford's popularity has plummeted significantly since he swept aside the former Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne in June 2018.
Former environment minister Rod Phillips was named the new finance minister.
Phillips earned extensive praise from Ford for taking Ontario out of its cap-and-trade program with Quebec and California. The premier called him an all-star on several occasions.
Jeff Yurek, formerly minister of transportation, takes over for Phillips in environment.
Additionally, all but seven ministers saw their roles changed. With the shuffle, the size of Ford's cabinet increased by a third, growing from 21 to 28 ministers and associate ministers, despite Ford’s having previously said that he intended to keep his cabinet small to save taxpayers' money.
Ford told reporters after the swearing-in of his new cabinet that the one thing he would have liked to do better in his government’s first year was “getting all the great successes out into the news and making sure the media are fair and balanced.”
Ford was audibly booed on Monday at a rally to celebrate the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship, a reaction not shared by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Toronto Mayor John Tory, who were introduced at the same time.
“You can change the communicator, but the message is the same,” Andrea Horwath, the Opposition and NDP leader, said in response to the shuffle.
Public disapproval would only grow “unless the new cabinet is able to get Doug Ford to change direction and start paying attention to what’s really happening out there.
“There’s no good way to communicate the kind of cuts that this government has forced on Ontario families,” she said, adding that the new ministers will find it is “scorched earth they’ve inherited from their predecessors.”
Ford sought to convey confidence in Fedeli, Lisa Macleod and Lisa Thompson, the three biggest heads to roll in the shuffle, framing the government’s second year in power as one that would be much different from its first.
Macleod, as minister for children, community and social services, had been in charge of introducing an overhaul to how autism services are delivered. Protests from parents of autistic children forced Macleod and Ford to backtrack on some measures.
Thompson had been minister of education, a position now occupied by Stephen Lecce, a fast-rising, one-time communications staffer under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Teachers’ unions and school boards across the province have said the Ford government’s budget cuts mean they will not be bringing back all teachers and other education staff after summer school holidays.
Among other high-profile changes, Caroline Mulroney was replaced as attorney general by back-bencher Doug Downey, while retaining francophone affairs and adopting transportation, which will put her in charge of major subway and other transit projects in Toronto.
The shuffle also included one new ministry: long-term care, separated from the broader health ministry, as well as five new associate ministers, making Ford’s executive team larger than Toronto city council.
Ford intervened in an ongoing municipal election campaign days after being sworn in last year, moving to cut the number of council seats almost half.
Tory struck a diplomatic tone when asked about the shuffle, saying he looked forward to working with them in “a spirit of mutual consultation and partnership.”
Toronto city councillor Mike Layton said that, unless the new caucus stands up to Ford and his inner sanctum, the provincial government will likely see its popularity slip further as the reality of its cuts are felt more keenly.
Finance minister demotion a rarity
Vic Fedeli becomes the shortest-tenured Ontario finance minister in more than 25 years.
It is rare for a finance minister to be demoted after only one budget.
Both Fedeli and Phillips were recruited by former PC leader Patrick Brown in 2017. Fedeli was also briefly interim party leader after Brown left after sexual misconduct allegations in January 2018.
But the negative reaction to Fedeli's budget has been relentless, putting Ford's government on the defensive and culminating in a decision to adjourn Queen's Park for an extended summer break that will continue until after the October federal election.
The Ford government has most recently backtracked on proposed cuts to municipal funds after a very public and heated battle with Tory.
The premier unveiled his new team a few days before celebrating the one-year anniversary of the day he was sworn in at the annual Ford Fest, a barbecue bash held in Ford's riding of Etobicoke in west Toronto. The Tories were elected on three core goals: eliminating the provincial deficit, boosting the economy and reducing the tax burden.
The government's April 11 budget included an extensive list of cuts and changes that have impacted everything from Ontario schools to municipal governments to health agencies and legal aid to research and tourism, in an effort to eliminate an $11.7-billion deficit. The budget also spends $4.9 billion more than last year’s Liberal financial plan.“It’s his priorities that are the problem, not who sits around the cabinet table,” said John Fraser, interim leader of the Liberals. “They hired a special advisor for alcohol and axed the child advocate.
“This premier is obsessed with booze, gas pump selfies and endless campaigning."
The shuffle also comes a day after the government laid off 416 people in the Ontario public service as a result of its overhaul of the province’s health care administration system. It also arrives after hundreds of layoffs of teachers across Ontario due to increased class sizes and a shift towards e-learning.
Both moves contradict a key pledge Ford made during the final leaders’ debate of the 2018 election: “Nobody will be laid off."
Ford insisted he has “the best cabinet this province has ever seen and I’ll put it up against any government in Ontario," one year ago.
“The men and women standing behind me, each and every one of them are more than capable of hopping into any portfolio and getting a job done,” he said on June 7, amongst his cabinet.
Ford's new cabinet has promoted several Tory backbenchers and created an associate minister of red tape reduction, mirroring a move by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
This is what the cabinet now looks like:
- Minister of Health - Christine Elliot (unchanged)
- Minister of Long-Term Care - Merilee Fullerton
- Minister of Finance - Rod Phillips
- Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade and Chair of Cabinet - Vic Fedeli
- Associate Minister of Small Business and for Red Tape Reduction - Prabmeet Srakar
- Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing - Steve Clark (unchanged)
- Solicitor general - Sylvia Jones (unchanged)
- Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks - Jeff Yurek
- Minister of Children, Community and Social Services - Todd Smith
- Associate Minister of Children and Women's Issues - Jill Dunlop
- Minister of Labour - Monte McNaughton
- Attorney general - Doug Downey
- Minister of Transportation and Minister of Francophone Affairs - Caroline Mulroney
- Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities - Ross Romano
- Minister of Education - Stephen Lecce
- President of Treasury Board - Peter Bethlenfalvy (unchanged)
- Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry - John Yakabuski (unchanged)
- Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines and Minister of Indigenous Affairs - Greg Rickford (unchanged)
- Minister for Seniors and Accessibility - Raymond Cho (unchanged)
- Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs - Ernie Hardeman (unchanged)
- Minister of Infrastructure - Laurie Scott
- Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport - Lisa MacLeod
- Minister of Government and Consumer Services - Lisa Thompson
- Government House Leader - Paul Calandra
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 7:00 p.m. with comments from NDP’s Andrea Horwath and Toronto mayor John Tory and city councillor Mike Layton.