Ford’s cyn­i­cal dis­play of po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age sets a dan­ger­ous tone

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion - BOB HEP­BURN Bob Hep­burn is a pol­i­tics colum­nist based in Toronto. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @BobHep­burn

What Pre­mier Doug Ford knows about On­tario’s health-care sys­tem you can place on the head of a pin.

What Ford does know well, though, is how to take care of his friends, even when it comes to this crit­i­cal field af­fect­ing ev­ery res­i­dent in the prov­ince.

That’s clearly ev­i­dent af­ter a dis­play of crass po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age by Ford at a level not seen in On­tario in a long time, in which the new pre­mier in­stalled his buddy, Dr. Rueben Devlin, as head of a task force that will look into the hospi­tal sys­tem.

As if even he was ashamed of what he was do­ing, Ford buried the news in the or­ders-in-coun­cil, made pub­lic July 6.

There was no for­mal an­nounce­ment or news re­lease of Devlin’s ap­point­ment a week ear­lier when the new Con­ser­va­tive cabi­net rub­ber-stamped Ford’s choice at its very first meet­ing.

Devlin, a for­mer On­tario Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party pres­i­dent and for­mer Hum­ber River Hospi­tal head, will be paid $348,000 a year, plus ex­penses, to lead the Pre­mier’s Coun­cil on Im­prov­ing Health­care and End­ing Hall­way Medicine.

That makes Devlin one of the high­est­paid peo­ple on the pub­lic pay­roll in On­tario.

It’s a stun­ning move by Ford, given how he bragged dur­ing the elec­tion about how he would “re­spect the tax­pay­ers” and re­strain soar­ing pub­lic sec­tor salaries.

It’s even more telling given that Devlin was one of On­tario’s top-top paid hospi­tal bosses for 17 years, earn­ing some $250,000 a year way back in 2000, some $500,000 in 2010 and even more in sub­se­quent years. He re­tired as Hum­ber River CEO in 2016.

Con­trast Ford’s pa­tron­age handout with that of for­mer pre­mier Kath­leen Wynne, who in 2015 ap­pointed Ed Clark, for­mer TD Bank Group pres­i­dent, as a busi­ness ad­viser and pri­va­ti­za­tion czar.

Clark’s salary? A mere $1 a year. With­out a hint of shame, Ford fired Clark at vir­tu­ally the same mo­ment he ap­pointed Devlin to his lu­cra­tive po­si­tion.

The ties be­tween Ford and Devlin are deep. They have known each other for years and when the pre­mier’s brother Rob Ford, the late Toronto mayor, be­came ill, Devlin helped Ford deal with re­porters.

Dur­ing this year’s elec­tion, Devlin helped de­vise Ford’s thin health plat­form and then served on Ford’s tran­si­tion team.

While an in-depth look at our health­care sys­tem is needed, is Devlin, who at times has been a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in both po­lit­i­cal and health cir­cles, the best per­son to tackle the job?

In 1986 while an ortho­pe­dic sur­geon at York County Hospi­tal, Devlin was com­plain­ing loudly about a short­age of hospi­tal beds not only where he prac­tises, but across the prov­ince.

But even though he was a key Tory power bro­ker dur­ing the Mike Har­ris era, he had lit­tle ap­par­ent in­flu­ence in re­duc­ing wait times or hospi­tal crowd­ing.

In 2006-07, Hum­ber River Re­gional Hospi­tal, which he headed, had the sec­ond worst death rate in Canada and the worst in the Greater Toronto Area. At that time Devlin had been head of the hospi­tal for al­most seven years.

In 2009, emer­gency wait times at two Hum­ber River sites in north­west Toronto av­er­aged nearly 23 hours and 21 hours re­spec­tively dur­ing a one-month pe­riod, ex­tremely high mea­sures by any stan­dard.

In 2014, the On­tario Nurs­ing As­so­ci­a­tion warned pa­tients that two of Hum­ber River’s busy emer­gency de­part­ments were “dan­ger­ous places for those seek­ing care” be­cause of chronic un­der­staffing.

Also, Devlin over­saw the clos­ing of three hospi­tals, re­plac­ing them with one pub­licpri­vate “dig­i­tal-first” hospi­tal at a cost of $1.76 bil­lion. The new fa­cil­ity has failed to meet the de­mands of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

Last fall, the Wynne govern­ment was forced to re­open one of the closed sites to deal with the crowd­ing is­sue.

So why the haste — and se­crecy — in ap­point­ing Devlin? Were no other qual­i­fied can­di­dates con­sid­ered?

And to whom does Devlin re­ally re­port, health min­is­ter Chris­tine El­liott or Ford?

Im­por­tantly, this pa­tron­age ap­point­ment is a clear sign Ford is on a dan­ger­ous path of as­sum­ing he has the power to do what­ever he wants.

It’s also a clear sign his ac­tions will need care­ful over­sight for the next four years.

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