I never thought I’d end up writing an obituary for a cell phone number, but life can throw us curveballs like that I suppose.
The ten most powerful digits in Ontario politics are no more. After over a year of being the premier that pretty much any Ontarian could ring up or text, Doug Ford has had to cancel his number.
The number was one of Ford’s greatest strengths as a politician, and certainly his staff’s greatest frustration. It allowed Ontario taxpayers to bypass bureaucracy, gatekeepers and inter-departmental phone tag, letting them raise their policy questions or concerns with the premier himself.
At one point not long after Ford was sworn in as premier, I was at an event at which he was speaking. He referred to people being shocked when he called them back, inviting anyone in the room who didn’t have the number to get it from him or someone else at the party who had it.
This became a running joke at Ford’s appearances, including one noteworthy example of him reading it out at a large business event in Washington.
But all good things must come to an end. Ford has cancelled the number at the behest of his staff, because it’s ceased to function how it’s supposed to.
Meant to be a tool for constituents to speak with their premier, the number became a political tool exploited by union leaders and activist groups not for dialogue, but to encourage others to spam Ford as part of orchestrated campaigns.
It’s not doxxing per se, as it’s a number that was never meant to be a secret. But the effect is the same.
“Special interest groups have co-opted this access with co-ordinated campaigns to push their own agendas,” Ford’s press secretary Ivana Yelich said. “This has made it impossible for the premier to use his cell phone for the original objective: to speak to the people.”
People can still connect with Ford through the traditional channels, but gone (at least for now) is the direct line in that exemplified how Ford is, whether you like him or not, such a unique force in Canadian politics.
Green Party leader and Guelph member of provincial parliament Mike Schreiner said the number was little more than a “stunt.” NDP MPP Taras Natyshak viewed it as a “ploy” rooted in Ford’s “populist appeal.”
What these critics may not know is that this was legitimately Ford’s personal cell phone number, and had been for years – even predating his term on Toronto’s city council. It was posted in Toronto newsrooms and handed out to anyone in Etobicoke who had an issue. It was the number that ultimately created Ford Nation, when Ford and his late brother Rob never hesitated to get their own hands dirty to solve a constituent’s issue when the City of Toronto wouldn’t or couldn’t.
The number may have been as ubiquitous as Pizza Pizza’s, or perhaps even more so, but those who had it felt special nonetheless. It wasn’t just a generic voicemail, but a phone that Ford answered, called people back from, and responded to texts on – even in the wee hours of the mornings.
This is a level of access that most people wouldn’t even get from their local city councillor, but could from the premier.
In fairness, there are many politicians of all stripes who are extraordinarily accessible to their constituents. There are also far too many, again from all parties, who seem to forget their primary role is to serve their constituents. Though we’re living in an age where patience is wearing ever thinner on those in the latter category.
We can thank the rise of populism for this shift.
Contrary to Natyshak’s inference, “populism” shouldn’t be a bad word. It unfairly gets a bad rap considering at its core, populism is simply about representing the people. Every effective politician should embrace populism, but most are running from it. This is why Ford branded his government Ontario’s first ever “for the people.”
How better to establish you are, in fact, for the people, than by being directly reachable by the people?
I’m well aware of the logistical challenges of the premier of a province of 14 million playing his own receptionist, but it represented something pure that has been missing from politics: a connection to the grassroots that exists between election campaigns.
The battle between the everyman and the elite is still alive and well. This tension is emboldened by stories of Justin Trudeau’s Bahamas vacations on a billionaire’s private island, or more recently Minister Dominic LeBlanc’s travel on his corporate buddy’s private jet.
It’s regrettable that the number had to die because critics couldn’t appreciate it for what it was. It’s the end of an era indeed.
My condolences to whomever is saddled with that number next.
Photo Credit: CTV News
Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.