Doug Ford’s strange weekend victory in the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race serves to clarify much of the muddiness that’s swirled around both the major election contests due this year.
Provincially, voters will now have a very crisp choice between Ford’s brand of plutocratic populism and the barely distinguishable progressive alternatives offered up by Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Howarth. The latter is more personally popular, but the premier has been governing for much of her term like an NDPer, and no doubt intends to campaign as such.
Municipally, Ford’s victory, of course, means his name won’t be on the mayoral ballot. But will any others beside Mayor John Tory?
I certainly hope so, and I suspect many Toronto voters do, too.
In my view, Ford’s win means it’s time for the centre-left in Toronto municipal politics to put up or shut up. There’s a horse race to be run, but only if one of the mayor’s critics has the gumption and, frankly, the character, to provide disillusioned voters with an alternative.
The failings in his record are well known: insisting against a vast mountain of evidence that the one-stop Scarborough subway is the best way to spend $4 billion in transit dollars; rejecting out-going City manager Peter Wallace’s advice on stabilizing municipal finances with less volatile revenue streams; spending $1 billion to rebuild a highway no one uses; and playing political games with the lives of shelter users in the middle of a record cold snap. In recent weeks, Tory has been called to account for a contradictory transportation strategy that seems to encourage speed even in the face of a spike of pedestrian fatalities and calls for a Vision Zero approach.
While his record does include positives on the city-building front (e.g., the King Street pilot, the Bloor Street bike lane, and a new tactic for financing Toronto Community Housing’s repair backlog), there’s much to criticize, and council’s left has not been shy lately when it comes to calling out Tory on his lack of leadership on a range of policy files.
“Years of policy work down the drain,” tweeted Trinity-Spadina’s Mike Layton earlier this month about the non-theoretical risk of increased flooding in the wake of the executive committee’s May, 2017, decision to ice any discussion about stormwater charges on homeowners.
Toronto Centre’s Kristyn Wong-Tam — whose name comes up regularly in discussions about potential challengers — tweeted on Saturday night that there is “suddenly a lot of room for a truly progressive candidate,” but then promptly ducked, offering up a list of other potential challengers, among them sitting councillors like Josh Matlow and Mike Layton, and an assortment of high visibility critics, including Desmond Cole, Jennifer Keesmaat, and Cathy Crowe.
At some point, someone’s going to have to break free from this daisy chain.
Beyond the intra-mural dynamics, Ford’s victory also re-calibrates the municipal-provincial dynamic. In the past several months, Tory has been looking to position himself in the political centre, likely because he assumed, as did many others, that pre-scandal Patrick Brown — a colourless and implausible leader — was unlikely to win in June with a platform that wasn’t especially conservative.
My long-standing hypothesis about Tory’s approach to inter-governmental relations is that he’ll shimmy in the direction of whoever is in the premier’s office. Why? Not just because his executive has as many Liberals as Tories. It’s also because he doesn’t have the temperament for the sort of confrontational, populist politics that this complex relationship occasionally demands. Unlike Mel Lastman, who had to call out Mike Harris’ Tories for duplicity, or David Miller, who did the same with Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals, Tory prefers not to shout from the lectern in the mayor’s protocol lounge, believing, instead, in the elitist fantasy that backroom compromise is always possible between reasonable people.
With Ford in the leader’s job, everyone should ignore the boilerplate mayoral blather about looking out for Toronto’s interests and watch, instead, for signs that Tory may begin trying to figure out how to be a bit more hedgy with the Wynne Liberals and more affectionate towards his former adversary.
It’s also important for Toronto voters to contemplate how a Tory-Ford pairing functions if the provincial Tories succeed in ousting Wynne in June.
Tory and Wynne have been able to get along because they represent similar constituencies with convergent interests. The Ford-Tory relationship, I’m guessing, will be a transactional nightmare, not least because Doug comes to that relationships with both bragging rights and a revenge motive.
Indeed, if one itemizes the pricey asks that the City of Toronto has on the desks of various Liberal cabinet ministers, it’s pretty clear that a Premier Ford would have enough leverage to carry him through most of Tory’s second term.
In particular, it hardly strains credulity to imagine that a Premier Ford will gut both Metrolinx and the Toronto Transit Commission, both Liberal-heavy organizations (at the governance level). Is Tory the guy who will fight that fight, if it comes? Or is he more interested in making sure that whatever’s left of SmartTrack, his electoral legacy projects, gets completed?
Point is, this fall’s mayoral race will be about all the usual things, but voters may also be forced to ask themselves how the city will advance its interests over the next four years. If Wynne wins, or if there’s a Liberal minority propped up by the NDP, the relationship calculus doesn’t change. If Ford prevails, however, this story takes on a radically different cast – one that the centre-left on council should end up wearing if it opts, for reasons of expediency, to sit on the sidelines, criticizing idly.