When John Tory launched a pointed broadside against the TTC two weeks ago over the agency’s reluctance to make deep cuts to its operating budget, the timing seemed strangely off-key given the fact that it coincided with the mayor’s splashy pronouncement about Rail Deck Park, a mega-project with no pricetag.
But I’ve begun to wonder whether Tory’s stagey threat was actually the kick-off of a tedious season of mayoral muscle-flexing designed to cast hizzoner as a penny-pincher in the run-up to council’s looming – and inevitably irritating – fall debate over new revenue tools.
For those of you who are hopelessly mired in the epic shlamozzle that is the U.S. presidential race, a brief re-cap: on the day when the mayor, chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat and Councillor Joe Cressy unveiled the park plan, with its lovely images and dearth of cost estimates, he curtly informed the TTC it would have to find $231 million in cuts without affecting service levels, and this after Byford informed the City he couldn’t get to the 2.6% reductions ordered up by council.
Tory then hauled out that most tired of conservative tropes: a pledge to send in his own bean-counters to do the dirty if Byford couldn’t get his people in line.
Raise your hand if you’ve seen this show before.
The provincial Tories, under Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, used to enjoy pulling this stunt, complete with their own gun-slinging forensic accountant, on the Toronto District School Board whenever their trustees had the temerity to point out that students were being shortchanged. (The provincial Liberals have followed suit.)
In a self-aggrandizing variation on the theme, George Smitherman, when he ran for mayor in 2010, promised voters that he himself would be the guy who’d knock heads by bird-dogging the entire budget-cutting process.
Our former mayor, whose name I need not repeat, offered up a similar tactic in 2011 by retaining the accounting giant KPMG to do a laborious “core service review” of city spending which revealed — ! — that there wasn’t much to cut.
My working theory is that Tory’s little outburst wasn’t so much about finding savings as it was about being seen to be looking for them, especially in regards to an institution that few mayors can resist slapping around from time to time.
By sharp contrast, Tory offered up no such outbursts in June when Police Services Board chair Andy Pringle and chief Mark Saunders unveiled an organizational and financial overhaul of the $1 billion police budget that offered little in terms of savings and all manner of phony budget reductions, all while failing to account for a looming and presumably hefty outlay on new technology for front-line officers.
We know Tory is a friend of the police and little more than an erstwhile ally of the TTC. But I’d argue that the show of force was at least partly to meant to signal the political right – councillors and voters alike – that he’s not going to be a fiscal pushover when (if?) council approves various new taxes to address the structural shortfalls identified by city manager Peter Wallace. Indeed, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if Tory, in the next few months, reprised his John Wayne shtick with other city departments.
If I had the unenviable task of providing Tory with strategic advice, I might be tempted to suggest he do more of the same. After all, the public’s attention span is short, and so the juxtaposition of fiscal tough talk with a fractious fight over new taxes may seem like the best hedge against the political capital Tory stands to lose each time he has to get up on his feet to answer questions about new revenues.
What’s more, as we inch closer to the 2018 election cycle, Tory’s going to have to do something, positionally-speaking, to respond to critics who accuse him of leading the charge on some spectacularly expensive infrastructure projects without offering up any really compelling strategies for paying for them (besides promising that other governments will foot the bills).
All that being said, it irritates me that he doesn’t have the guts to lead a serious debate, sans qualifiers, over the City’s true financial situation. Instead of playing showy and pointless games with highly effective managers like Byford, why can’t Tory arrive at this enormously important debate fully seized of the case for more diversified revenues to support both capital and operating outlays?
In order to make his arguments convincingly, I’d say that Tory actually needs to do exactly the opposite of the stunt he pulled on the TTC. The budget squeeze facing agencies tasked with delivering more services to more people shouldn’t present an opportunity for pot-shots and political positioning; rather, evidence of such pressures should provide the mayor with teachable moments during which he can show Torontonians that a city with better transit, more housing, new parks and re-built highways won’t come without costs.
Yet as has been clear throughout his mayoralty, Tory always seeks to be the guy who wants to have his subways and ride them too: he revels in the idea of being seen as the great city builder, but he doesn’t want the responsibility of enduring the short-term political pain that gets us from here to there.
So on the eve of a debate that will define his legacy, I’m deeply troubled by the fact that Tory has resorted to tired party tricks that subtly undermine the critically important point that Peter Wallace has been making for months now, which is that we will only get the city we’re prepared to pay for, and no more.
Surely if Tory doesn’t yet understand this point in his bones, as seems to be the case, he’s in no position to persuade anyone else of the same.