Scrambling to reboot his sputtering government, Premier Doug Ford is replacing Vic Fedeli with Rod Phillips at finance and demoting other poorly performing ministers in a massive cabinet shuffle.
Ford, whose poll numbers have been in a tailspin since Fedeli’s April 11 budget unveiled a slew of unpopular cuts, shook up his executive council Thursday, installing cabinet newcomer Stephen Lecce at education in place of Lisa Thompson.
The premier told reporters the overhaul is to “make sure we have the right people, in the right place, at the right time” for his government’s sophomore year, noting some of “the tough decisions” were made over the first 12 months.
“Could we have done a couple things better? Absolutely. Our message wasn’t getting out,” said Ford, suggesting critical media coverage and union-funded attack ad blitzes are hurting him.
Asked why he took the unprecedented step of firing his finance minister, the premier bristled.
“I don’t look at it that way,” he said, emphasizing he needed to retool.
Lecce (King-Vaughan) is one of seven new faces in cabinet, which has ballooned by 33 per cent from 21 ministers to 28, including Ford. There are now 19 men and nine women.
Fedeli has been downgraded to economic development, a stunning rebuke for the affable Nipissing MPP who was interim Progressive Conservative leader until Ford took over in March 2018.
Caroline Mulroney, who had been attorney general, has been moved to transportation, succeeding Jeff Yurek, who takes over Phillips’ former role at environment.
Well-regarded lawyer Doug Downey (Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte) is the new attorney general.
Mulroney will be assisted by associate minister Kinga Surma, the first-term Etobicoke Centre MPP and long-time Ford friend.
Thompson — now minister of government services — had raised the ire of school boards, teachers’ unions, parents, and students during her tumultuous tenure at education.
Similarly, Merrilee Fullerton, a disappointment at training, colleges and universities, has been relegated to minister of long-term care. Her replacement is Ross Romano, the Sault Ste. Marie MPP and another cabinet newcomer.
Fullerton had been castigated for not meeting with university presidents, student leaders or other stakeholders as she presided over cuts to tuition assistance programs.
Lisa MacLeod, who Ford blames for the botched funding of autism services, has been made minister of tourism, culture, and sport.
Todd Smith, a strong communicator, will take over her duties as social services minister.
Phillips, a successful entrepreneur who has turned around struggling businesses, is viewed as a capable steward of the province’s finances and a known commodity on Bay Street.
The premier, who marks the Progressive Conservatives’ first year in office a week from Saturday, has been publicly booed in recent weeks, including at the launch of the Special Olympics in May and at the Raptors’ celebration Monday.
Fedeli’s banishment followed an uneven rollout of the record-spending $ 163.4 billion budget — $ 4.9 billion more than former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s fiscal blueprint last year.
The former treasurer was blamed for the poor communications plan to sell the budget.
He is also being castigated for insisting the Tories adopt auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s accounting treatment that excludes $ 11 billion of government money in co-sponsored public pension holdings as assets on the bottom line.
That accounting — designed to make the previous Liberal government’s books look bad — added about $ 5 billion to a deficit that now sits at $ 10.3 billion.
Former provincial controller Cindy Veinot resigned in protest of Fedeli’s change last September.
“Vic always said he was ‘on the record’ in opposition as supporting the auditor on that,” said one frustrated adviser to Ford, speaking on background in order to discuss internal conversations.
Another problem for Fedeli was the premier’s insistence that beer and wine sales be expanded to corner stores.
The ousted finance minister escalated tensions with the Beer Store, which has a 10-year deal with the Ontario government signed in 2015, limiting points of sale to 450 supermarkets as well as existing LCBO outlets.
Breaching that deal could cost taxpayers $ 1 billion in penalties paid to Molson, Labatt, and Sleeman, which control most of the Beer Store.
The threat of doing so led to a stern warning from the United States Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business organization with 3 million members, that it would undermine claims Ontario is open for business.
Staying put are Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, Seniors Minister Raymond Cho, Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman, Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski, and Energy Minister Greg Rickford.
Newcomers include Government House Leader Paul Calandra.
Laurie Scott, now infrastructure minister, swaps with Monte MacNaughton, now labour minister.
Other new associate ministers are Jill Dunlop (Simcoe North) and Prabmeet Sarkaria (Brampton South).
Dunlop will help Smith as associate minister of children and women’s issues.
Sarkaria, who joins Cho as the only other visible minority in cabinet, is associate minister of small businesses and for red tape reduction.
Former tourism minister Michael Tibollo, already demoted once in a November mini-shuffle, is now associate minister of mental health and addictions.
Bill Walker, who had been government services minister, has been zapped down to associate minister of energy.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath panned the changes.
“Looks like Doug Ford is throwing cabinet ministers under the bus for his own cuts,” said Horwath.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said Ford is trying to “change the channel from the chaos created by his government in its first year in office.”
“He is obsessed with booze, gas pump selfies, endless campaigning and now, his plummeting personal poll numbers. His priorities are out of whack with the priorities of Ontario families,” said Fraser.
In a statement, Steven Del Duca, the front-runner in the March 7 Ontario Liberal leadership, also blasted Ford.
“Ford’s move to fire his hand-picked finance minister less than one year into his mandate risks destabilizing our economy and weakening Ontario’s standing with international investors and financial markets,” warned Del Duca.
“He is running a rudderless government and thinks rearranging deck chairs will help save a sinking ship. It won’t.”
Calling the Ford PCs a “failed government,” Liberal MPP and leadership contender Michael Coteau said “adding more seats and changing a few faces is simply admission of that failure. The agenda has not changed: they still have a plan to make cuts to children and families.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said “Ford’s cut-first, consult-later approach to governing will not be fixed by rearranging the deck chairs at the cabinet table.”
“A cabinet shuffle of this magnitude shows there are deep problems in his government,” said Schreiner.
Privately, senior Conservative strategists also worry about the impact of such a radical revamp.
“It looks like chaos,” said one high-ranking Tory, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy