The strangest moment in last week’s epic transit showdown – besides when The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy mysteriously began making fun of my wardrobe on Twitter – occurred at the beginning of Mayor Rob Ford’s speech, as he entreated his colleagues to “stop playing politics” with transit.
That line, to his evident dismay, brought a chorus of sardonic laughter, as many in the cheap seats were clearly thinking about pots and kettles. But Ford’s sentiment has a certain validity. After all, in a debate in which the stakes are so very high, every politician, expert and advocate feels their own position is, for lack of a better phrase, post-political, and thus should represent the end of the conversation.
Sometimes, the politics is dressed up in fancy policy duds (Metro’s Network 2011 or the TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy); other times it wears only a loin cloth (Mel’s Sheppard stubway; Ford’s “Transportation City”). Yet it’s all politics.
Which is fine – the people pay, the people should have their say. But vigorous debate is surely just a means to an end, which is informed government decision-making followed by policy implementation. Our transit debate, by contrast, has been infected for a generation with an infinite loop bug. It’s like an Wagnerian opera that won’t get beyond the overture, or the football game that doesn’t end because the refs didn’t sound the two-minute warning.
As Scarborough’s Chin Lee said on Wednesday, “Every time the government changes, we divert from what we did before.” Ain’t that the truth.
The question is, how does this city short-circuit the infinite loop?
In this space two weeks ago, I asked who was prepared to be the grown-up in the city’s latest spasm of transit politicking. TTC chair Karen Stintz, of course, gets the prize, for all the reasons that have been articulated on this blog and elsewhere.
Armed with Wednesday’s council compromise position, Queen’s Park must now demonstrate that it is also capable of acting like the grown-up, which, in this instance, entails absorbing all the advice it has received and making a definitive executive decision, once and for all.
The official pronouncements from Premier Dalton McGuinty and his infrastructure minister Bob Chiarelli are almost convincing, but there was still enough equivocating on the part of the latter that I am tempted to conclude that the Liberal’s fractious cabinet has yet to fully recognize their own agency in this mess.
On Wednesday, after the vote, Chiarelli made this statement: “I would encourage council and the mayor’s office, leave your politics at the door, come into the room and understand that the people of this city want results – shovels in the ground. It should be the transit rider first. Further prolonged debate borders on being irresponsible [italics added].” In the next breath, he said that until the Sheppard expert panel review is complete, “we will not have a complete plan.”
My verdict: Chiarelli is guilty of…playing politics, hoping against hope that Ford will extract his feet from the quick-drying cement of his pro-subway stance and join Stintz’s coalition of the willing.
Won’t happen. Memo to the minister: The mayor has no end game.
Indeed, the Liberals, between now and the end of March, have to get their heads around the reality that Ford and a minority of council are not only off-side but plan to devote a certain amount of political energy to discrediting what the mayor rather remarkably described as council’s “irrelevant” decision. (Which raises the question: if that vote was irrelevant, what about the ones that went his way?)
Rather than bickering internally about strategies to allow the mayor to save face, the Liberal cabinet should engage itself in a much more important discussion with far more significant long-term consequences: are they genuinely prepared to now let Metrolinx do what it was set up to do five years ago, which is hoover some of the election-cycle politics out of transit investment?
We know the Liberals failed horribly at this already once, when, despite Metrolinx’s years of planning and consultation about a GTA-wide transit plan, they readily capitulated to Ford’s bullying upon taking office. Instead of negotiating the non-binding MOU that council ultimately undid last Wednesday, the Liberals last March could have simply ordered Metrolinx to conduct a cost-benefit assessment of Ford’s subway/underground LRT plan viz the $100 billion Big Move strategy, and then make the ultimate decision based on rational side-by-side comparison.
The Liberals have one chance to redeem themselves from that egregious mistake, but just one: if they balk, they may as well disband Metrolinx because its mandate to act independently will have been shattered beyond repair. What’s more, the government’s long-awaited investment strategy for transit, due in June, 2013, will be politically still-born because every stakeholder in this debate will know that the cabinet can always be manipulated into overriding Metrolinx’ spending plans.
So whatever the result of the Sheppard subway expert study that’s to be delivered next month, the choice facing Queen’s Park is enduring on multiple levels. To build transit in Toronto and simultaneously defend Metrolinx, they must blow the whistle, close the doors and leave the station.
If the mayor’s on the train, great. If he’s on the platform, that’s his choice.
As Abraham Lincoln famously observed, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” And that’s just politics.