During a campaign-style drive-by in Mississauga last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, according to reports, sought out Toronto’s newly installed mayor, John Tory, for a little leaderly face-time. Harper, it seems, would sooner take a meeting with the top dog catcher from Kalamazoo than cross paths with the duly elected (majority) premier of Ontario. What’s more, Tory clearly needs Harper more than Harper needs Tory. But for the moment, we’ll have to accept the convenient fiction that the prime minister so cares about Toronto that he’s willing to take time out of his busy schedule, etc., etc.
It remains to be seen how these tête-à-têtes will play out a few months hence, when the island airport expansion scheme — currently the subject of numerous studies [PDF], plus a non-mandated environmental assessment by the Toronto Port Authority — lands again at council.
Tory, late in November, formally recused himself from council votes involving Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport because his son runs an aviation company with a regional office at the facility (two of his staff were also involved with Sussex Strategy Group, a lobbying firm that had Porter Airlines as a client).
Much less clear is whether Tory is legally — or, more likely, politically — conflicted when it comes to taking public positions about the federal government’s actions regarding the future of the Toronto Port Authority.
Consider: when the Harper government tabled its omnibus budget bill in Parliament earlier this year (Bill C-43, which just passed third reading), it included several amendments to the Canada Marine Act, all of which focus on port authorities and the power of the minister to over-ride their decision-making power.
City, Waterfront Toronto, and TPA officials all know about these provisions and are said to be pondering the possible ramifications for the island airport expansion to accommodate a new breed of apparently quiet jets. But there’s been scant public discussion; indeed, the amendments didn’t come up as part of the TPA’s presentation at the runway expansion EA consultation session held last week, and my sources say that even waterfront watchers have heard little about them.
The legislation gives port authorities the right to acquire and lease federally-owned land. It also gives the minister the discretionary power to make regulations about developments in port areas — Section 64.1 (1), for those of you who are singing along — and further states that said ministerial orders “prevail” over decisions about land-use, by-laws and operations made by port authority officials, in the event of policy inconsistencies.
And lastly, this nugget: “No civil proceeding may be brought, no order may be made and no fine or monetary penalty may be imposed against Her Majesty in right of Canada or a port authority, in relation to an undertaking that is situated in a port, under regulations made under subsection 64.1(1), based on any right or interest held by Her Majesty or the port authority in that port.”
Maybe it’s all just legal housekeeping. Or not. Taken together, these Trojan Horse amendments seem to be saying that Ottawa can, if it so chooses, override what a port authority does, and not have to worry about getting sued after the fact.
Put differently: not necessarily a power grab, but a power grab if necessary.
While the amendments obviously apply to all Canadian port authorities, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan warns that these changes will allow the feds to “have a way of controlling the [Toronto port] precinct they never had before.” Little Norway Park, the Canada Malting silos and some parcels in the Portlands are all federally owned, and could theoretically be transferred to the TPA or be exempted from zoning or land use controls that council might pass to thwart the jet scheme, he adds. “They can sculpt zoning on other properties.”
How does all this legalese fit into the immensely complicated expansion assessment/evaluation process, which is looking into everything from noise and emissions to land-side impacts? From where I sit, these provisions could function like a sword of Damocles, hanging over the heads of the various decision-makers at the city and the port authority. The “may” in the bill’s wording tells the tale.
At some point in the foreseeable future, City/TPA evaluations and master plans will be complete, as will Transportation Canada’s study on the marine exclusion zones, runway lengths and so on. At that point, the feds will be in a position to say yes or no to Bombardier’s C-series jets on Billy Bishop’s possibly expanded runways. The legislative changes cited above suggest that Ottawa has discretely, but meaningfully, moved to ensure that the cabinet has more sway over the decision-making process.
Which brings us back to Mayor Tory.
As I noted in this space last week, Tory’s Smart Track financing plan, the $1 billion naturalization of the Don mouth and a massive commercial development scheme envisioned for the Unilever site are all tied up in a complicated planning waltz. Much depends on a $300 million-plus cash contribution from Ottawa to help fund the flood plain protection scheme for the lower Don, without which large-scale development in the portlands and on the Unilever site can’t proceed.
How does that piece connect to the Billy Bishop expansion? If the Unilever site is to become our Canary Wharf, it seems likely that demand for island airport flights will grow, although more among business travelers, as opposed to the mid-haul vacationers that Porter wants to serve with its Bombardier C-series jets.
In theory, the feds could use their bulked-up clout with port authorities to ensure the TPA secures federal land and imposes zoning rules that ensure there are no flight-path obstacles on the eastern end of the harbour.
But I’d say the more likely, and more worrisome, scenario involves the feds playing let’s-make-a-deal with their share of the lower Don funding — in effect using those new powers, plus the threat of withheld funding, as a kind of double-pronged stick designed to keep the talks moving briskly towards the desired conclusion.
Here’s where Tory — who, as mayor, is council’s official designate on all intergovernmental matters — will face more challenging questions about his role in this file. If GTA minister Joe Oliver, who owns the Waterfront Toronto portfolio, tells Tory that the lower Don money comes with airport strings attached, the mayor obviously can’t just throw up his hands and say, `Well, Joe, it’s up to council to vote to amend the Tripartite Agreement or not.’
What’s more, if the feds opt to exercise those new powers in order to deliver the desired result (i.e., expansion), is Tory constrained by his declaration under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, or will he be expected to speak up on behalf of the city’s broader interests — for example, about the impact of the proposed six-metre blast deflection wall that will seriously impair pedestrian harbourfront views?
These are incredibly tough questions that will demand astute replies and a deft touch when it comes to all the political horse-trading. But for Tory, the reality is that these questions are coming, just as surely as spring follows winter.
SCHEMATICS BASED ON E.A. DATA, by NoJetsTO
The schematic above was created by NoJetsTO, based on the data provided by the TPA in the ongoing EA scoping process. Waterfront advocate Jude MacDonald points out that the TPA has never provided ground-level images showing how pedestrians and boaters would experience the walls, the enlarged runways and the marine exclusion zone. The slides in the EA presentation show the proposed runway either from overhead or at an elevation, not from ground level, where most of us spend our days. And no one’s come up with an image showing the view from water-level in the harbour looking back at the city, with those blast deflector walls in place.