For all the spin and counter-spin hovering around the David Miller-John Baird feud over the streetcar â€œask,â€ most observers have neglected to account for the critical dynamic that has defined this controversy, which is the exercise of political control.
Setting aside all the policy justifications and the mug’s game of tallying up the economic spin-offs, the story line here has always put Toronto in the tenuous position of dictating how Ottawa spends. And in the world beyond the 416, no self-respecting national politician — Tory, Liberal or other — can get away with letting Toronto help itself to the contents of the federal coffers.
That kind of thing doesn’t sell in Calgary, it doesn’t sell in the Gaspe and it doesn’t sell in Mississauga. As the old joke goes, the only thing that holds Canada together is that everyone hates Toronto.
A huge amount of inter-governmental diplomacy is transacted specifically to prevent one order from lording it over another, and this is a lesson Miller surely understands. His administration has gone to great lengths to align its goals with those of the McGuinty Liberals, with the result that provincial-municipal control battles have become mercifully infrequent.
But Miller never invested the same kind of effort with the federal Conservatives, his attempts at chumminess with Baird notwithstanding. What’s more, he seems to have forgotten that the Mike Harris Tories, whose alumni are well represented in Ottawa, rarely passed up an opportunity to wage control battles with Jean Chretien’s Liberals back in the late 1990s. It’s what they do.
And it’s what Miller does, too. Exhibit A: today’s announcement workers strike. The sticking points in the talks have focused on the city’s sick day â€œbankâ€ and wage demands in the wake of the salary freeze imposed on the non-unionized employees.
In a recession and with an election looming next year, Miller would be a fool not to weigh the broader political costs and benefits of allowing the union to strike, something he resisted doing previously in his mayoralty.
As a lefty, he’s naturally vulnerable on the subject of financial management. While the city’s recent spending increases are mostly offset by new revenue sources (intergovernmental transfers, the notorious tax levies, etc.), his administration’s Achilles Heel is the fact that it has drawn down or neglected many municipal reserve funds, including the one meant to cover long-term liabilities associated with the sick day bank. Those decisions will come back to haunt Miller.
While no one likes a summer garbage strike, Miller realizes he’s got little choice but to exert his political control at this juncture, because to do otherwise would be to allow the civic sector unions to dictate his fate in 2010.
And in the crude calculus of pre-election politics, he’s got little to lose by standing up to a union that’s staking a claim to a lucrative entitlement. Just like John Baird did last week, Miller knows he’s got to demonstrate who’s the boss.
photo by Matthew Borrett
John Lorinc is a contributing editor to Spacing and writes the magazine’s City Hall column. During the summer months, he’ll be making the occasional blog posts here on Spacing Toronto.