LORINC: Wynne offers up Murray as Scarborough subway punching bag

If the latest skirmish over the Scarborough subway had a leitmotif, it was that of the minister as loose cannon.

“Ontario’s transportation minister [Glen Murray],” opined the National Post’s Kelly McParland, “appears to have drunk deeply from the well of Fordian politics, and is doing his best to emulate — if not surpass — the mayor in the halls of bunglehood.”

Wondering who writes his “gobbledygook,” The Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy dismissed Murray as a “caricature of a caricature.”

The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee, describing last week’s developments as the moment when tragedy turns to farce, condemned the minister’s “back of the napkin” proposal as “the latest in a dizzying series of plans and counter-plans, feuds and food fights.”

Rounding out this foursome, The Star’s editorial board thundered on Friday that, “Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray’s latest announcement would be laughable if it weren’t such bad public policy. That hasn’t stopped him from shamelessly trumpeting his ill-conceived plan.”

It’s not often that all four broadsheets — not to mention the alt-weeklys, the bloggers and the #topoli twitteristas — are so ideologically aligned on an issue.

But with all due respect to my colleagues, the Murray-as-freelance-villain narrative is a convenient fiction deliberately perpetrated by the Liberals. Setting aside the intemperate quotables, Murray, from where I sit, is faithfully serving his allegedly level-headed premier, without whose approval none of this would be taking place.

When I checked Factiva over the weekend, it showed that Wynne had garnered over 80 more print/online media mentions than Murray mustered between Wednesday (the day of the announcement) and Sunday (330 to 246, respectively). But the premier’s name appeared alongside Murray’s in only 50 of those articles (i.e., less than one in six) – compelling proof that she’s succeeded in keeping her distance from this political hand grenade.

Yet he’s clearly her cabinet’s designated flack catcher, and no one should be lulled into believing that Murray’s actions on this file are anything but Wynne-stamped government policy.

Before I get to the issue of what this tactic says about Wynne, let me note that many premiers and prime ministers have an enforcer/loud-mouth on the front bench to soak up the political attention that the leader would prefer to avoid.

Brian Mulroney had John Crosbie. Stephen Harper uses John Baird or the recently departed Vic Toews. Jean Chretien relied on Paul Martin to break all that harsh fiscal news. And lest we forget, Murray’s predecessor in Toronto Centre, George Smitherman, played that exact role for Dalton McGuinty, who never liked to reveal the dirt beneath his fingernails.

If the analogy holds, it would be fair to say that the Liberals have someone in cabinet who has succeeded in making us feel nostalgic about Furious George. But the parallels are undeniable: Smitherman, notoriously, liked to bang on his officials heads and appeared to be politically fearless in taking on powerful vested interests (namely, the hospital sector, the drug companies, and the nuclear industry).

But no one wondered whether Smitherman was doing anything but the premier’s bidding. He was the government, not some crazy-ass side-show.

It’s no different with Murray, even if he has succeeded in making Smitherman look like a zen-master. There’s no sunlight between Murray and Wynne, and suggestions to the contrary provide Wynne with precisely the sort of political cover she does not deserve at this moment.

Wynne, after all, came into office promising a more conciliatory form of government than McGuinty practiced at the end. She’s spent her career espousing sober, consultative politics, as opposed to the my-way-or-the-subway form. In my mind, she was a politician who listened to experts (e.g., during her long stint as education minister) inside and outside government, and respected processes.

And, lest anyone forget, Wynne’s public career really began during the Citizen For Local Democracy pep rallies in the Metropolitan United Church in 1997, when she and John Sewell fought the good fight to oppose the anti-Toronto unilateralism of the Mike Harris Tories.

In fact, I’ve always seen Wynne as a politician who actually believed that local government entities – school boards, municipalities, etc. – should receive more respect and autonomy from high-handed provincial regimes. (Murray, as mayor of Winnipeg, expended a lot of breath on that very cause about a dozen years ago.)

That Wynne, I regret to say, has vanished stage right — persuaded by whomever she’s currently listening to that it makes more sense, in terms of retail politics, to unleash an enforcer as a way of protecting Liberal seats in Scarborough.

Gone, too, is her brave leadership talk about revenue tools and a fix for a generation and any meaningful commitment to designing a rational inter-governmental approval process for moving ahead with transit expansion in the GTA.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Wynne has spent much of her time in the premier’s office meticulously trying to scalpel her fingerprints off the record of the latter days of the McGuinty regime. As I read the storyline, she’s emerged as the sort of leader who prefers to duck out of the limelight when things get hot and heavy.

In reality, the loose cannon in this subway debacle is Kathleen Wynne, who authorized a senior cabinet minister to detonate an intricately negotiated agreement (between the City, the TTC and Metrolinx) in pursuit of short-term political gain. Any other reading of last week’s Punch and Judy show is simply naive.

7 comments

  1. This is exactly right John, the only question is where do we go from here? Can anyone gracefully back down at this point?

  2. I might remind you that Wynne was a terrible transportation minister too.

  3. The sad thing in buying the Scarborough electorate by flushing $1B down the drain is that Wynne is missing the point about Rob Ford’s success and Justin Trudeau’s current high in the polls: the electorate is hungry for clear and simple principles and politicians who will stick by them. Wynne just shot her principles in the foot, wasted $1B, legitimated Rob Ford’s bad transit policy, and gained nothing. Is there something I’m missing here? The only good thing to come out of this is a rich episode of Glenn Murray schadenfreude.

  4. Thanks, John.

    This is very good “inside the Beltway” analysis of the Scarborough transit issues, or at least the implications of the manner of Murray’s announcements for the Liberal régime at Queen’s Park. Murray (the cabinet minister from Winnipeg) plays the asshole to Wynne’s saintliness.

    But what does Murray’s announcement mean for the rest of us? As in, when do I get to ride on trains? When will my journey times improve? When will I get a seat?

    The fact is that Murray’s announcement will delay construction even longer. Indeed, we will likely take a few steps back in terms of service because the SRT will have to close, and the whole system will move to some kind of permanent shuttle bus line. Life on the ground will get worse, not better.

    And that’s the point. The Liberals, like Ford (whether he can articulate his predelictions or not), are in thrall to the auto industry. They do not want a viable, comfortable, reliable alternative to cars, at least insofar as they can help it. So they stall, and they stall, and they stall with the promise of something better. When in fact service is likely to deteriorate for the foreseeable future. And hundreds of millions of perfectly productive transit dollars will be wasted on projects that get cancelled and filled in again.

    That’s the subtext to Murray’s announcement.

  5. I agree Wynne’s consiliatory approach is noticeably absent on this file, and in so many local communities that are screaming about ham-fisted energy proposals that are doing more harm than good. Forcing an unwanted hydro plant into the most celebrated place in a tourist town, at Bala Falls, is the one I know best. No amount of pleading by the local politicians has done anything to persuade the province to look for middle ground.

  6. Wynne’s approach is at least consistent. The REAL villain is Stintz. Imagine saying you’ll support subways to get the position as Chair, reverse your position to LRT/Transit City, then due to political ambition switch back to subways again (joining the Liberals) because they can’t get elected without them.

    It’s a sad, sad state of affairs and I think it’ll stick with Stintz.

  7. G&M headline from Sept. 19 — “Toronto subway-route debate stalls as Wynne refers funding plan for study” Stall, stall, stall, stall, stall….Do we go through this much hand-wringing about “revenue tools” when we want to build a single road?! By the way, the other strategy for sending valuable transit-construction dollars down the pan is to over-build a white elephant which few people will use. And what did Murray suggest? An alignment of the Bloor-Danforth line which would necessitate a complete re-orientation of Kennedy station from east-west to north-south alignment. That’s not construction, that’s vandalism.

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