POLITICS
06/20/2019 16:16 EDT

Stephen Lecce, Ontario's New Education Minister, Is A Harper-Era Communications Whiz

The new member of Doug Ford’s inner circle had a job in the prime minister’s office when he was 23.

Tijana Martin/Canadian Press
Stephen Lecce is sworn in as Ontario's minister of education at Queen's Park in Toronto on June 20, 2019. 

TORONTO — Ontario’s new education minister is a 32-year-old who worked as deputy director of communications under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Premier Doug Ford promoted Stephen Lecce, MPP for King—Vaughan, to the portfolio Thursday. Lecce replaces Lisa Thompson after a turbulent year in the ministry. He did not hold a cabinet portfolio previously, but served as parliamentary assistant to Ford and two ministers.

 

“We added some fantastic talent to the table that’s going to help us move the agenda forward, my friends,” the premier said at a press conference.

He refused to explain why he appointed certain ministers to their portfolios but said that education is one of the two most important files.

“Everything we do and every decision we make will be based on what matters most to people. And what matters most to people is reinvesting into health care ... [and to] increase funding into education.” 

Everything we do and every decision we make will be based on what matters most to people.Premier Doug Ford

His Progressive Conservative government has increased overall spending on education from $29.1 billion in the last fiscal year to $29.8 billion this year. But his cuts to education grants and the move to increase class sizes and force high school students to take courses online have dominated news headlines and sparked protests.

The PCs also faced months of heated protests and court challenges in the fall over their repeal of the former government’s sex education curriculum, which it ended up reinstating with very minor changes.

Thompson — who spurred outrage in March when she defended increasing class sizes because it will make students “more resilient” — was shuffled to a more junior portfolio, government and consumer services.

The new education minister has challenging months ahead. Teachers’ contracts have to be renegotiated before they expire on Aug. 31, just a week before students are set to return to classrooms after their summer break.

Before being elected to Ontario’s provincial parliament in 2018, Lecce’s experience was in government communications. He was first hired by Harper’s office when he was only 23.

Tijana Martin/Canadian Press
Ontario Premier Doug Ford shakes hands with Minister of Education Stephen Lecce at Queen's Park in Toronto on June 20, 2019.

One of the things Lecce likes about politics is that promotions are based on merit, not age, he told HuffPost Canada in a previous interview.

“There certainly is an upward mobility in this place,” he said. “You could be 25 and do well.”

He’s appeared on radio and TV to defend some of Ford’s most controversial decisions, including his use of the “notwithstanding clause,” which lets governments protect legislation from certain court challenges if it’s seen to violate Canadians’ fundamental rights.  

 

The cabinet shuffle comes as the Ford government’s popularity sinks. Ford has been booed by crowds at three events in the last five weeks, and polls suggest he’s now less popular than former premier Kathleen Wynne was at the end of her term.

Ford denied that the shuffle was an attempt to turn things around, but did say his government needs to be better at publicly communicating its message.

“Could we have done a couple things better? Absolutely. I’ll say that over and over again,” Ford said.

“I think we always have to do a better job in communicating. And we will do a better job in communicating our successes, even though we’re up against multi-billion-dollar unions, public sector unions, coming at us and other people that have had this sense of entitlement, a sense of entitlement with the taxpayers’ money for the last 15 years.

“It’s not sustainable if we continue down that path.”