TORONTO — In pro wrestling, there are heel turns and there are babyface turns. A heel turn is when a good guy becomes a villain; a babyface turn is the opposite.
There was never more interest in Ontario Premier Doug Ford this year than the week of March 29 to April 4, when a flurry of articles declared him a babyface.
The headline on a Flare magazine article (adapted from their cousin, Maclean’s) expressed what many Ontarians were thinking: “Do We…Like Doug Ford Now?” It was the top Google result for the premier’s name that week, when more people searched for news about him than any other time in 2020.
The story said Ford had transformed from leading a government that “could best be described as dumpster-fire adjacent” to a leader “who projected an unmistakable air of calm, competence and decency.” Author Max Fawcett called it “the biggest babyface turn in Canadian political history.”
Other outlets did it without using WWE language. Among his other top hits that week were a Toronto Star column with the headline “Doug Ford becomes the unlikely leader that his province needs,” and a Canadian Press article, “Doug Ford’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic draws praise from friends and foes.”
The consensus was this: the trash-talking premier of 2018 and 2019, the guy who cut resources for foster children and kids with autism, had gone away. A compassionate, competent leader had taken his place to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ford’s second-biggest moment on Google was also decidedly babyface.
It came the week of May 10 to 16, when the premier posted a video tutorial for how to make his mother’s cherry cheesecake.
“If I wasn’t premier, I’d open up a cheesecake factory,” he says.
Approval rating skyrockets in spring
Voters’ opinions of him changed dramatically.
In May, Abacus Data said Ford’s image had gone “from very bad to impressive” in less than three months. In March, when Ontario was reporting no more than 350 new cases of COVID-19 per day, 61 per cent of Ontarians had a negative impression of Ford and 23 per cent had a positive impression. By May, it was the opposite. Forty-six per cent said they had a positive impression of him while only 25 per cent said their impression was negative.
The record high didn’t last, but Ford’s approval rating is still much higher than it was in 2019, when he became the least popular premier in Canada.
Angus Reid Institute recently reported that his approval rating had fallen to 55 per cent in November, from 69 per cent in May.
“From a public opinion perspective, the early days of the pandemic were a strongpoint … Ford’s shift in persona enabled him to earn the approval of Ontarians previously entrenched along party lines,” the institute’s report said.
“While Ford’s approval remains at a majority level, it has fallen 11 points in the last three months … COVID-19 hospitalizations have climbed to second wave highs in the province, and the Peel region and City of Toronto have entered the lockdown level of the province’s protocols.”
Since then, the situation has gotten worse. Windsor-Essex and York Region are also now in lockdowns.
Some say Ford hasn’t really changed.
“It’s the same old Doug Ford and the same old agenda,” according to NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“All you have to do is look at how they rammed really inappropriate legislation through the legislature under the cover of COVID-19 bills,” she told HuffPost Canada.
She cited the Progressive Conservative government’s use of pandemic legislation to gut conservation authorities’ power and give degree-granting powers to a Christian college run by a publicly homophobic, Islamaphobic ally of Ford’s.
“I think people aren’t fooled by this cloak Mr. Ford has been wearing.”
Former premier Kathleen Wynne, after a surprising speech given by Ford in her honour, said the premier had changed in some ways but was failing in others.
“I think the pandemic would be challenging for any leader. It’s been challenging for Premier Ford,” Wynne said.
“I think, to a large extent, he’s risen to the occasion. I think there are big problems with many of the things he’s done and I’ve been critical of … the return to school, the testing and tracing [policies] and so on.
“But I do understand what’s going on at 3 in the morning when he’s awake, because I’ve been there.”
(During his speech about Wynne, Ford threw a poorly-veiled dig at the “mean and nasty spirited people, vicious, vicious people” in the NDP.)
Second wave hits Ontario — and Ford’s new image
Ford’s spike in public goodwill came against the backdrop of an unprecedented public health crisis, which not everyone believes he has handled well. Nearly 4,000 Ontarians have died of COVID-19, most of whom lived in provincially-regulated nursing homes, and more than 144,000 have been infected.
Satire site The Beaverton spoofed the contrast in October: “‘I don’t like him, but I gotta say Ford has risen to the occasion’ says man to his dead grandmother.”
Ford’s latest slide in popularity has coincided with the second wave of COVID-19, which has seen far higher case counts than the first.
In the spring, the record number of new cases in a day in Ontario was 640. The province hit 2,432 on Dec. 17.
And the premier has faced criticism from political opponents, health experts and business groups, who say he hasn’t done enough to contain the spread, protect vulnerable long-term care residents and support businesses, especially small businesses.
“Doug Ford is giving up, going home, and waiting for a vaccine,” Horwath said when the PCs voted to adjourn the legislature early for its winter break. “This is not a second wave plan. It is appalling.”
Journalists have pointed out that there was rarely a mention of the people who died or condolences offered to their families in the government’s daily press briefings and online updates.
In November, a CBC News reporter asked Ford why he more often expressed sympathy for business owners forced to close down than for families who lost someone to COVID-19.
The premier said nothing affects him more than hearing from those families.
“I met a lady the other day that came up to me and said, ‘I wanna thank you for doing a great job. I lost both my parents in long-term care, a week apart, two weeks ago.’”
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