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John Ivison: Doug Ford describes meeting with Trudeau as 'very productive, very collaborative'

In politics you’re like a toilet seat – you’re up one day, you’re down the next, mused then Toronto city councillor Doug Ford.

Since becoming Ontario’s premier in June 2018, Ford’s seat has been down so long it probably looks like up. His populist revolution fizzled, as support deserted him following a string of policy reversals, spending cuts and bad publicity.

Ford’s place in the political firmament was epitomized by his treatment by friends and political foes in the recent federal election – Conservative leader Andrew Scheer treated Ford like the crazy uncle who needed to be kept away from the wedding guests; Liberal leader Justin Trudeau rejoiced in using him as the portent of what Scheer’s public service cuts would mean for Canada.

But anyone convinced Ford is destined to be a one-term premier may end up sorely disappointed.

He was in Ottawa to meet Trudeau on Friday and it was a very different affair from their first summit in July 2018, which one person in attendance described as “super-heated”. At that time, the two men needed one another as political punching bags. Now, they need one another to get things done and rehabilitate their reputations in the eyes of voters.

Ford sat down with the National Post after his meeting with the prime minister and said he was happy with what he heard.

“It was very productive, very collaborative and we agreed that we’re going to talk about things that matter to the people of Ontario and their priorities,” he said.

Ford is looking for the federal government to chip in 40 per cent of the multi-billion dollar capital cost for transit projects that include the Ontario Line that would traverse Toronto from south-west to north-east.

Did Trudeau sound positive?

“He can’t answer that there and then but he understands that between a municipal government that voted overwhelmingly in favour and our provincial government, it’s the right thing to do.

“He’s focused on the environment, well there’s no better way to help the environment than take tens of thousands of people out of their cars into rapid transit project,” Ford said.

The premier was also looking for the federal government to increase its share of healthcare funding, by boosting transfers by 5.2 per cent a year, rather than the three per cent the feds have committed to. On this one, Ford and the other premiers have leverage – Trudeau’s desire to introduce a national pharmacare program.

What I want to do is bring the premiers together and calm the waters

Ford is clearly less than convinced that universal coverage is needed.

“We mentioned 5.2 per cent but he has his pharmacare. I told him we have to sit with the premiers in Toronto and that there’s a few challenges.”

He said 96% of people in Ontario are covered through an “excellent” OHIP Plus plan, private sector or other areas.

“It’s the four per cent that aren’t that are the issue….Hopefully, we’re going to come to a compromise,” he said.

The premiers are set to meet in early December in Toronto and Ford sees a role for himself on the national stage.

“What I want to do is bring the premiers together and calm the waters a little bit,” he said.

The premier said that Trudeau has to listen to the worries of the people in the West. “They have major concerns. When I was out there this summer, half the buildings were empty in Calgary. It’s a real problem, they’re facing some economic hardships right now,” he said.

Ford refrained from criticizing Trudeau’s treatment of the West as paternalistic.

“I didn’t see that side of the prime minister when I talked to him today. I think he’s in a different position now than he was four years ago. He’s willing to work with the rest of the provinces. I think it’s so important that we give the world certainty. Right now we have a divided country and hopefully bringing them to Toronto we can sit down and listen to the concerns of the West,” he said.

Doug Ford may not strike many people as a natural conciliator but he insists his approach is much calmer and more measured than previously.

He said Ontario is thriving and the province’s biggest problem is finding people to fill all the available jobs.

Given that tax revenues are up, employment is down and business is booming, would he concede he went too far, too fast in introducing spending cuts?

“It’s always, when you try to rush things, you always learn the first year in. In saying that we passed 21 pieces of legislation, sat for 131 days out of the year. We’ve slowed down a little bit…we have had the opportunity to learn from some of the bumps in the road we faced in the first year.”

Ford said he has a new staff, a new cabinet and new senior bureaucrats in the Ontario public service. “We’ve taken a fresh look at things and in my opinion it’s going a lot better. Quite a bit better,” he said.

I don’t want to hurt a lot of people

I asked if he felt he is a stronger leader now, as a result of the “bumps in the road”?

“A hundred times better. A hundred times better. Learning and moving forward and making sure we set the right tone, being collaborative with municipalities across the province, working with the other level of government, the federal government. It’s so much easier when everyone sits back and works together,” he said.

Following Ford’s revelation that he is learning French, and his arrival on to the federal stage as Captain Canada, I asked whether he might consider running for the job of Conservative leader, should it become open.

“I have a big job right now in Ontario, to straighten out the mess that we inherited. We’re getting there but it’s a big job. We inherited a $15 billion deficit and the largest sub-sovereign debt in the world, $347 billion, and there’s a lot of moving parts. We’re turning the ship around,” he said.

That $15 billion deficit for 2018/19 was revised downward to $7.4 billion in this year’s public accounts, leaving Ford’s government on track to balance the budget as promised in 2023/24.

“We’re doing it responsibly, thoughtfully. We’ll hit our target in year five. It’s easy to go in there and hit the target in four years but I don’t think it’s realistic. It would hurt a lot of people and I don’t want to hurt a lot of people,” he said.

We’ve taken a fresh look at things

I suggested that’s not the impression many people have of him. Is that indicative of the change of tone?

“I think so,” he said. “The facts are we’re spending $1.9B more on healthcare than the previous government. We’re spending $1.2B more on education than the previous government.”

It must have been a conversion akin to St. Paul on the road to Damascus to persuade the man who promised to “stop the gravy train” to boast about how much money his government is spending.

I took a final stab at establishing how vaulting his ambition might be. Did I hear you rule out a Conservative leadership bid?

“No comment,” he chuckled, with the caution of a man deliberately leaving the door ajar.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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