TORONTO — Several high-profile Ontario ministers who have come under fire for introducing unpopular measures were demoted in a massive overhaul of cabinet on Thursday, as Premier Doug Ford reached for the reset button after a rocky first year.
One of the biggest moves saw Vic Fedeli shifted from the finance portfolio to economic development, while other ministers in charge of problematic files — including education and social services — also got smaller roles.
The shuffle comes just after Ford and his Progressive Conservatives marked the one-year anniversary of winning a majority government, but also as Ford has been slipping in the polls — with some suggesting he could hurt Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's chances of winning in Ontario in the October federal election.
The Tory government has also been weathering weeks of criticism as funding cuts hidden in the April budget have since emerged in a near-daily stream, fuelling successive waves of outrage.
Ford acknowledged communications problems over the last 12 months, but framed his cabinet shake-up as a way to start fresh for year two.
"Every one of our cabinet ministers, I feel, have done a good job, but we can always do a better job," he said.
Fedeli did "an incredible job" as finance minister, but will also be great in his new role as economic development minister since he is a natural salesperson, Ford said.
Ryerson University politics professor Wayne Petrozzi said it's highly unusual to shuffle so many senior ministers, especially the finance minister.
"You either misjudged the people you appointed or, as is probably more likely, the direction you've provided them has led them into deep trouble and the only way you can save your face, being the premier, is by moving them," he said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the shuffled ministers were simply implementing Ford's commands.
"Doug Ford is throwing his cabinet under the bus," she said. "Mr. Ford seems to claim that this is all an issue of communications but there's no way, no good way, to communicate the kinds of cuts that this government has forced on Ontario families."
There will be only so much Fedeli's successor, Rod Phillips, can do with unpopular policies, Petrozzi said.
"It's not a communications problem," he said. "They talk about it as if it is, and he's going to fix things — 'he's a master communicator, etc., etc., etc.' — I suppose if you believe that you also believe you can turn sows' ears into silk purses."
Phillips, former chairman of Postmedia and former president and CEO of OLG, played a major role in the cancellation of the province's cap-and-trade program and attacking the federal carbon tax as environment minister.
Lisa MacLeod, who angered parents over her handling of the autism file as minister of children, community and social services, is taking over the tourism, culture and sport portfolio.
Lisa Thompson moves from education to government and consumer services after sparring with teachers' unions and angering parents by increasing class sizes.
Her successor in education, Stephen Lecce, has a monumental task ahead as bargaining with teachers is just getting underway in a new era of wage restraint and the fallout of larger class sizes is looming in September.
Lecce, who previously worked in communications for former prime minister Stephen Harper, is one of two backbenchers who got huge promotions. Doug Downey, another backbencher who was a real estate lawyer before entering politics, is becoming attorney general.
In all, there are seven new faces around the cabinet table, with the size of the executive council ballooning from 21 to 28 people. As one of Ford's first acts as premier he slashed the size of Toronto city council, but denied that increasing the size of his own government sends a contradictory message.
"We're always going to have the best interests of running an efficient government," he said. "If you look at some of the other cabinets over the years we're still in line, if not smaller."
Merrilee Fullerton, who came under fire for changes to post-secondary education as minister of colleges and universities, will be responsible for long-term care. And Caroline Mulroney, formerly the attorney general, is moving to the post of transportation minister. She will continue to be responsible for francophone affairs, despite taking heat over cuts to francophone services earlier in the term.
Health Minister Christine Elliott stays in her post, though health responsibilities will now be split over three portfolios, including the new long-term care ministry.
Michael Tibollo was demoted from tourism, culture and sport — a further step down from his previous role as community safety and correctional services minister in a previous shuffle — to a new portfolio of associate minister of mental health and addictions.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones and Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy are among other high-profile members of cabinet keeping their posts.
Other senior shake-ups include Todd Smith moving from economic development to take over children, community and social services as the government works on a revamp of the controversial autism program, and Jeff Yurek shifting from transportation to environment.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect spelling for Christine Elliott's last name.