Last night’s stunning win for Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne will almost certainly trigger not one but two leadership races — Tim Hudak will get the boot after seeing several Tory blue seats morph into Liberal red ones. And Andrea Horwath, the instigator of this whole exercise, managed to move from a position of great political influence to a position of no political influence.
But the other politician who’s got to be worried about the provincial outcome is Olivia Chow, currently the front-runner in the mayoral race. After a night that saw the NDP lose in her old (federal) riding of Trinity-Spadina, Chow must be wondering whether her former party’s tepid electoral showing in the 416 will cast a long shadow over her own ostensibly non-partisan run.
Yet there’s a much more specific problem that will confront Chow now that Wynne has a solid majority, and that is the viability of her centerpiece campaign plank — the pledge to reverse the $1 billion Scarborough subway decision and proceed instead with the originally planned LRT.
In Toronto, Wynne’s Liberals ran on a promise to build the Scarborough subway — it was in their spring budget, and then it was part of their campaign platform. With a majority in hand, the premier, I’m guessing, will be far less inclined to indulge Toronto council in yet another chaotic debate about transit priorities, especially after fending off an existential challenge from the NDP.
After all, she can — and will — say that voters backed her transit program, both at the macro level (the $29 billion transit trust fund) and at the micro level (the Scarborough subway decision, orchestrated last spring and summer). Regardless of the excessive cost and the poor planning it reflects, the decision is part of her government’s record, and voters in Toronto signed off on it, in significant numbers.
As with all minority governments that graduate into majorities, Wynne’s Liberals will become far more assertive in their decision-making in the months to come. Never mind that her own political career began, way back in the mid-1990s, with a fight to force Mike Harris’ Tories to respect local democracy.
Now, with the roles reversed, she’s got four years of clear sailing ahead of her. At least part of the Liberals’ success in the 905 has to do with their promise to confront gridlock, and Wynne’s going to want to be able to show progress in 2018. So she’s not going to squander another year re-litigating Scarborough, regardless of the merit. What’s more, I predict she’ll find many ways to telegraph this point to Toronto voters, probably through emissaries, long before the municipal vote.
The flip side of this analysis is that John Tory finds himself exceedingly well positioned to take advantage of Wynne’s victory, and not just because he’s got the most Liberals working in his war room. (He got a congratulations note out the door before any of his rivals.)
Tory began cozying up to the Liberals two weeks ago with the release of his surface-rail strategy, which strongly resembled Metrolinx’s own plan and carried the imprimatur of several influential Liberals. Tory would be a fool not to remind voters at every turn that if they elect Chow in October, she’ll be attempting to deliver a promise that runs directly counter to the Liberals’ mandate.
It’s possible that Chow could attempt a campaign course correction, and either try to fudge on her Scarborough subway promise (`we’ll review…’) or simply let it fall by the political wayside. But in so doing, she will lose a vital wedge that distinguishes her from Tory on arguably the most top-of-mind issue in the election.
Quite apart from the particulars of the candidates’ respective platforms, I’m guessing that many Toronto voters, between now and voting day in October, will find themselves asking which leader is likely to work most constructively with a newly emboldened Wynne.
It’s crystal clear that Rob Ford, who will make his sobriety victory lap later this month, is not that guy. But last night’s result may prompt Torontonians to ask themselves whether Chow can fulfill that role. More than anything else, Wynne’s majority means that voters, in Toronto and across Ontario, are weary of gridlock, in all its guises. It’s a message Toronto’s mayoralty candidates would do well to heed.
photo from Toronto Archives