To understand the unbearable shallowness of Doug Ford’s Tories, there may be no better example than our ongoing licence plate fiasco.
You may have heard (if not seen) the news: Ontario’s new licence plates are hard to read at night, according to a plain-spoken (and plain-tweeting) police officer with photos to prove it.
Had the Ford government owned up to the nighttime problem at first light, the revelation might have been merely embarrassing but not quite incriminating. Yet they didn’t, daren’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t.
Instead, the Progressive Conservatives denied reality and ducked responsibility until the story became absurdly indefensible. They transformed it into a cautionary tale of political pigheadedness.
“Plategate,” as the media has dubbed the boondoggle, isn’t just about licence plates that can’t be seen in the dark. It is about blind spots — and a tin ear — from a premier who talks up front line police officers but won’t listen up.
The official response from Government Services Minister Lisa Thompson, speaking on Ford’s behalf? Nothing to see here except how much better Ford’s “Government For the People” is than what came before it.
“We absolutely have confidence in our plates,” Thompson said Tuesday, insisting that “these plates are working — people like them.” She boasted that they were a vast improvement over the old “status quo Liberal plate.”
Liberal licence plates? Never mind that the old design emanated from past PC governments decades ago. By turning road safety into a partisan punching bag, and throwing a police officer under the bus, this government gave us insight into its instincts:
Political optics versus visibility of licence plates. Public relations messaging versus listening to police and answering public criticism.
The government stuck to its guns while shooting the messengers — not just the police officer but opposition MPPs and the media. Mercifully, the government declined to lash out at Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD) for echoing concerns that the new plates make it easier for intoxicated suspects to escape justice.
Plategate isn’t merely about a lack of visibility and transparency but hypocrisy.
Within months of winning the 2018 election, Ford decided to turn his pedestrian campaign slogan — “Open for Business” — into a provincial credo. Henceforth, decreed the premier, his favourite phrase would be plastered on all new licence plates for commercial vehicles in Ontario.
Those on private vehicles, which now read “Yours to Discover,” would also be replaced with “A Place to Grow” — inspired by a decades-old (and largely forgotten) song, while deftly riffing off Ford’s pet slogan about business growth. Critics wondered about the sudden need to change, but the Ford government had a ready answer:
The Government For the People is giving the people what they want. Even if they never asked for it nor voted for it.
“People across this province want change — they voted for change and they’re getting change,” the premier boasted last year when defending the plates — thus opening the gates to Plategate. “Changing the licence plates doesn’t cost a penny to the taxpayers. They are still producing the plates. It’s going to be the same cost.”
No cost. Unless you factor in the incalculable cost of rushing through a partisan-inspired rebranding at the expense of public safety, not to mention lost revenue from Toronto’s red-light cameras being unable to read the fine print on the new plates, and the extra work of shipping out replacements.
“We want to make sure people understand there is a new government — we are actually open for business,” explained Bill Walker, the previous minister of government services, as he introduced the new plates last year. “You always want to look, when you come in after 15 years of disastrous management by the Liberals, to say, ‘Is it time to take a look at things?”
Today it’s not such a good look. This month the remaining stock of old plates was set aside and the new double-blue version went into circulation, bearing a remarkable resemblance to a deep blue box of Q-Tips — except for the reflective coating that can make them hard to see at night in the glare of head lights.
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Belatedly this week, the premier issued a statement saying that he had seen the light — the plates were hard to see in the dark after all. After all was said and done and denied, replacements plates will be shipped out to tens of thousands of drivers saddled with the new double-blue invisible versions.
A licence is more than a mere collection of letters and numbers. A plate connects us to what’s behind it — not just the owner of the vehicle but the government that issues it.
A year ago, our newly empowered and emboldened premier thought he could treat the licences of the province like his own partisan vanity plates. Now, as the author of his own tangled tale of hubris, he is hoist upon his own Plategate.