As Progressive Conservative MPPs privately complain to Premier Doug Ford about a “culture of fear” amid tongue lashings from his chief of staff, they are being urged to attend his annual “Ford Fest.”
In an internal caucus email obtained by the Star, the premier’s office is reminding Tory members to come to the Markham fairgrounds on June 22 to “celebrate our historic year with family, food and fun!”
While attendance for MPPs and political aides is not mandatory, Tories are being urged to promote the event on their social media networks.
Some confide they feel obligated to go, given rumblings of a looming cabinet shuffle after a string of negative public-opinion polls.
Nerves are frayed in the PC caucus after the Star revealed Wednesday that Ford’s chief of staff, Dean French, loudly scolded a female MPP on June 6 outside an airport hotel in front of the premier, other members and staffers.
Randy Hillier, who now sits as an Independent MPP, was ejected from the PC caucus after complaining to Ford about French. The chief of staff is now suing Hillier for defamation over some tweets and seeking $ 100,000 in damages.
“There’s a culture of fear — it’s like the KGB,” another Toronto MPP complained to the premier on June 6 after the tearful scene.
After the Star revealed the conversation, both Tory MPPs contacted Ford’s office to say they were not sources for the story.
Conservatives are hoping to rally the troops at Ford Fest, a picnic the premier’s family has been holding for more than 20 years. It gained prominence when his late brother, Rob Ford, was mayor of Toronto.
“Dear Caucus! Ford Fest is fast approaching and we still need your help to make this year the biggest and best Ford Fest yet,” says the email, which was sent by Ford’s office from a Gmail account because Ontario government accounts cannot be used for partisan purposes.
“The response we received from our first communication was amazing, but we need your help to keep that momentum going! New social media graphics are available in through the Dropbox link below.”
The email asks MPPs to post enclosed short videos — set to the Tories’ 2018 campaign jingle “For the People” — of last year’s Ford Fest, in which smiling cabinet ministers are seen flipping burgers.
“Please note that these materials are to be shared over your personal and party social media accounts only. Ford Fest materials cannot be shared on official government accounts,” the email cautions.
In a clip from last year’s picnic, which was held in Vaughan, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli enthuses, “I cannot get over the excitement that’s here.”
The message from the premier’s office to caucus members emphasizes that it is a casual event. It is open to members of the public who register online, and is bankrolled by the PC Party, not taxpayers.
“Ford Fest 2019 is an opportunity for our team to say thank you, and I hope to see everyone there,” the office reminded MPPs.
Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, who has impressed Ford with his deft handling of the government’s austerity push, said Thursday he “absolutely” will be in attendance.
“I’ve been in the past and I will continue to go because I’m a sucker for a hamburger,” he said.
While Bethlenfalvy’s name figures prominently in cabinet shuffle speculation, he played down any changes to the executive council.
“I’m focused on finding the savings and getting on with the work that we said we would do,” he said.
Asked if anyone has spoken to him about new cabinet responsibilities, Bethlenfalvy said: “I’m not going to speculate or comment on private conversations.”