National Newswatch

TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has long asked people to call him directly to air their issues, has cancelled his cell phone after being inundated with calls from special interest groups, his office said Wednesday.

The premier frequently gave out his cell number at public events and touted the gesture as sign of just how accessible he was.

A Ford spokeswoman said the premier had to cancel his phone on Tuesday after certain groups, who she did not name, flooded him with calls in recent weeks.

"Special interest groups have co-opted this access with co-ordinated campaigns to push their own agendas," Ivana Yelich said in a statement. "This has made it impossible for the premier to use his cell phone for the original objective: to speak to the people."

Yelich added that many messages had also taken on a harassing tone, with some even wishing sickness or death on the premier. She noted that Ford did not want to cancel the phone and did so only after being convinced by staff.

"The tone of the messages was the final nail in the coffin," she said.

Members of the public can still contact Ford through his official email and office phone number, Yelich said, noting that the premier was "committed to being as accessible as possible to everyday Ontarians." 

Ford handed out his number at rallies, meetings and numerous other gatherings. He drew attention from U.S. media in February when he doled out his number in Washington, D.C., during a business event broadcast on television.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said such moves always felt like a "stunt."

"Dial-a-Premier was never a responsible way to run a province of 14 million people," he said, noting that Ford styled himself as accessible while his Progressive Conservative government failed to adequately consult on issues like its autism program or changes to the education system.

"Given the pushback against the premier's 'cut-first think-later' approach, I am not surprised his voicemail turned into a complaints hotline," Schreiner said.

NDP legislator Taras Natyshak said the cell phone cancellation comes as Ford's polling numbers have dropped and the premier has received significant pushback on his policies.

"It was never really about Doug listening to the concerns of Ontarians," Natyshak said. "It was really always a ploy for Doug to play the everyone card and have that populist appeal. Unless you're a Doug Ford insider he doesn't want to hear from you."

McMaster University political science professor Peter Graefe said Ford giving out his number was part of his "political schtick."

"To give the number out is to give a folksy image of the premier as someone who has direct communication with people," he said. "The demand for information and action from ... a government of 14 million people is massive and can't be properly looked after by one person."

John Milloy, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and a former provincial cabinet minister, gave Ford credit for trying to interact with regular Ontarians. But he said the premier's practice raised questions about fairness and access.

"If I have Doug Ford's cell phone number does that mean I get special treatment," Milloy asked. "That doesn't necessarily mean a magic wand is waved but if the premier of the province phones ... guess what that file is going to the top of the list."

Ford's practice could also lead to the presumption that he would have a firm grasp on every file before his government, Milloy said.

"The premier doesn't know, and shouldn't know, all these files," he said. "What kind of advice and feedback is he giving (callers)? You can actually create some problems, particularly when you're the premier."

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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