Premier Doug Ford has dumped five ministers, moved eight others, and promoted seven backbenchers in a major cabinet shuffle with less than year to go before the next election.
Ford said Friday that his Progressive Conservative government needed an overhaul as Ontario emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, so he is returning former finance minister Rod Phillips to cabinet in the key role of minister of long-term care.
“Our renewed team is well-positioned to deliver on the priorities that matter to Ontarians, including getting more people back to work, making life more affordable, supporting businesses and job creators, and building transit infrastructure,” the premier said in a statement after the first virtual cabinet shuffle in Ontario history.
Phillips, who resigned as finance minister on Dec. 31 after a pandemic vacation to the Caribbean island of St. Barts, replaces Merrilee Fullerton, who becomes children, community and social services minister.
Fullerton had struggled to explain the problems in nursing homes that led to the deaths of about 4,000 elderly residents earlier in the pandemic.
Phillips is seen as a stronger communicator and manager who had performed well in environment and finance before his ill-advised Christmas holiday.
Fullerton succeeds Todd Smith, who is the new minister of energy, replacing Greg Rickford, now minister of a merged department of northern development, mining, and natural resources and forestry.
Rickford will remain as Indigenous affairs minister atop his other duties.
As first reported by the Star on May 31, Ford signalled his displeasure with ministers from rural ridings who dared to question his pandemic lockdowns by demoting them.
Gone from the executive council are former natural resources minister John Yakabuski, former environment minister Jeff Yurek, former infrastructure minister Laurie Scott, and former associate energy minister Bill Walker.
Only Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, who has privately dissented on the pandemic strategy, survived the purge.
All had expressed concerns at the cabinet table about the economic and mental health impacts of Ford’s response to COVID-19.
Also demoted was veteran agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman, who will be replaced by Lisa Thompson, a farmer. The five ministers dropped from cabinet are all from what are considered safe Tory ridings the party held in opposition.
Thompson, an ex-education minister who was government and consumer services minister, is succeeded by Ross Romano, who was colleges and universities minister.
Jill Dunlop, an associate minister, has been promoted to the post-secondary education ministry.
Also elevated were associate ministers Kinga Surma, who will be infrastructure minister, and Prabmeet Sarkaria, the new president of the Treasury Board.
Other promotions went to: Parm Gill, now minister of citizenship and multiculturalism; Dave Piccini, now environment minister; and associate ministers Stan Cho, Nina Tangri, Kaleed Rasheed, and Jane McKenna.
The Star reported last month that top Progressive Conservative officials felt the cabinet was “too white and too male.”
There are now 18 men and 10 women in the 28-member executive council, including Ford, with six BIPOC members.
As well, there is a more urban focus, with the new blood mostly coming from the Greater Toronto Area, which is home to more than one third of the seats in the Ontario legislature and crucial to Ford’s re-election hopes.
Six of the seven MPPs promoted represent GTA ridings.
The premier said he felt emboldened to move because “with 21 per cent of residents now fully vaccinated … we can be confident that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.”
His changes come almost two years after his last shuffle and just 50 weeks before the June 2, 2022 election.
Among those major players staying put are Health Minister Christine Elliott, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy (who lost his Treasury Board responsibilities to Sarkaria), Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton.
“By leaving Christine Elliott and Stephen Lecce in place, Ford is rewarding the two people that share responsibility with him for one of the most incompetent responses to COVID-19 in the Western world,” charged Liberal MPP Stephen Blais (Orléans).
NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said the shuffle is an admission of failure on long-term care.
“They can replace the players all they like,” Singh said, “but if the priorities are going to stay the same, we’re going to continue to get more bad choices.”
The president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, which says the Ford government’s programs for children are inadequate, told the Star her group will reach out to Fullerton, a former family doctor. “The difficult thing is her track record,” said Angela Brandt. “This is an opportunity for her to redeem herself.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the cabinet shuffle is “musical chairs” and “proves that Doug Ford would rather focus on re-election than helping Ontarians recover from this pandemic.”
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