I didn’t agree with every position Jack Layton espoused, but I have never forgotten one of his signature political lessons – an approach he once described when I was writing a profile during his run for the NDP leadership. Having struggled in the 1980s to gain traction at Toronto city council with a strident brand of lefty rhetoric, Layton embrace “propositional” politics. He came to realize it was better, and more positive, to advocate for something rather than just to oppose things.
We’ve seen a lot of opposition to Mayor Rob Ford’s administration in this past year, and a great deal of it is spot on. But on the anniversary of Ford’s victory — and also on the eve of the opening of the “Fourth Wall” project at The Urban Space Gallery — I’d like to borrow a page from Layton’s book and propose a sort-of new idea to advance the debate about the state of the city.
Sort of, because I’m shamelessly cribbing a very interesting idea that’s been buzzing around Calgary in the past few weeks, advanced by George Brookman, a former head of the Calgary Stampede, and Brian Felesky, a lawyer who is the vice-chair of Credit Bank Suisse Canada.
Picking up on an April proposal from the Canada West Foundation, Brookman and Felesky — a.k.a. Transformation Calgary — have pitched the following plan: the city should ask Alberta and Ottawa for permission to levy an additional cent on the GST collected within the city borders. The funds — an estimated $300 million annually — would go towards building and operating new recreation and arts facilities. The hitch: voters would have to approve the plan before the levy takes effect. (They could also rescind it if things aren’t going as planned.)
At first glance, their idea evokes David Miller’s “One Cent Now” campaign. But Transformation Calgary’s scheme is different in several crucial ways: Rather than disappear into general revenue, the funds would be earmarked, time-limited and locally generated. Most importantly, they are subject to political scrutiny. It’s not just about begging for handouts – deserved though they may be — from another order of government; local politicians would have to have skin in this game.
So how to transpose this to Hogtown?
First step: develop a short list of “transformational” needs. It’s safe to say that many Torontonians would put transit near the top, but the process of figuring out what else might qualify is a broad-based debate well worth having.
Second, establish the scale. If we’re going to seek a penny tax to build transit to help alleviate congestion, the discussion needs to take place across the metropolitan region, not just within the City of Toronto.
Third, look at potential revenues. A penny tax just on retail sales in the Toronto region would generate about $620 million a year. (For the sake of context, Metrolinx’s Big Move plan will cost about $2 billion a year for the next 25 years.)
Fourth, consider the instrument. Is the HST the right vehicle, so to speak, or should we be thinking of a GTA-wide parking levy or some other tax? After all, Alberta has no HST, so value-added taxes in the Calgary area are lower than here.
The business of formalizing this discussion is not trivial. We all know that Mayor Ford doesn’t believe that the city needs more revenue, and it’s also true that the municipal councils within the urbanized portion of the GTA have never been capable of collective decision-making. Moreover, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals need to be engaged, as the execution and administration of such a plan – as Bookman and Felesky well know – depends on a series of provincial approvals.
Does Metrolinx lead the debate? Possibly. But this kind of political advocacy needs to begin outside the walls of government so it doesn’t seem self-serving. So perhaps the place to begin is with engaged civil society groups and in settings such as the Toronto Mobility Forum on Nov. 9, a joint venture of U of T’s Cities Centre, CivicAction, the Canadian Urban Transit Association and the Pembina Institute.
Certainly, David Miller has rekindled public interest in resurrecting Transit City, and there will be much discussion about that particular goal. But the debate about transit and congestion is a regional issue, and should be treated as such.
From where I sit, the Transform Calgary guys are offering up a game-changing strategy – propositional politics at its best. We should study it closely.