Do. Not. Be. Distracted. By. The. Shiny. Object.
I speak, of course, about Doug Ford’s promise to spend $5 billion on transit, on top of previously allocated sums.
These kinds of campaign-cycle money planks are almost always meaningless, even from politicians who are far more trustworthy than Ford, but especially from a candidate so obviously trying to make himself palatable to urban voters,
The Trudeau Liberals came through on their spending pledges because they were perfectly aligned with the party’s ideological diagnosis of the economy circa 2015. But there are lots of counter-examples, and any promise of more expenditure from a candidate whose brand is smaller, less expensive government is automatically suspect.
Spool it out: the victor is declared on June 7, the accelerated spending review set in motion, and suddenly we’re at the fall economic update, listening to some Tory worthy or Ford’s finance minister declare that the cupboard is not just bare, but doesn’t have shelves. Et voila, money’s gone.
Rather, the ball to watch in this campaign — but one I suspect won’t be much in play for the balance of the race — is Ford’s pledge to upload the subway. This part of the party’s platform, which is a game-changer, has been part of Tory electioneering for several years, although the likelihood that it becomes a fully weaponized, mandate-backed program has never been greater. Remember, too, that former premier Mike Harris has been lurking around the edges of the Ford campaign, and he was at the wheel the last time a provincial government rammed through a massive structural switcheroo involving Toronto-area municipalities.
Here’s the most important point to remember when thinking about Ford’s transit plan: order of operations will be critical. Even if he’s sincere about the funding pledges, not so much as a cent of that green will flow until Ford has secured control of the rails, and with it, Metrolinx, which the Tories view as a Liberal bastion.
After all, those billions could secure GTA seats in 2022 (and for several elections afterwards), so Ford is going to make absolutely sure they’re spent in a way that maximizes political advantage, as opposed to transit efficiency.
Indeed, Ford, like Trump, is a politician who sees the world in transactional terms, which leads me to a second point: everyone watching this race, and the commitments Ford makes relating to the city, should focus closely on where, exactly, he’s creating the potential for leverage that can be deployed later, as necessary.
Ford, of course, wouldn’t be the first Canadian politician to attempt to manipulate lower-tier governments with the promise of cash. But typically, these kinds of quid-pro-quo deals have reflected some bundling of politics and policy.
There’s nothing whatsoever in Ford’s record, such as it is, that indicates any interest in, or understanding of, the fine points of transit planning. He knows what he knows, and he doesn’t care about what he doesn’t know. LRTs: bad. Subways good. Subways in suburban ridings whose voters have been trained to see themselves as victimized, better, because then he’s the white knight.
Finally, we mustn’t forget the impact that the subway upload pledge will have on this fall’s municipal election. If the Tories win a majority and don’t back-track on the subway plank, Ford emerges with enormous leverage over Tory. Look for Denzil Minnan-Wong, Tory’s frequently sullen deputy mayor, to be selected as the cabinet minister assigned to serve as the overlord for Toronto affairs.
There’s little doubt in my mind that if the Tories take office promising to break up the TTC (let’s call it for what it is), the impact will be felt as an anti-Tory backlash in ward races, meaning that council could end up slightly to the left of where it is now. At the same time, an easily re-elected Tory, heading a beseiged council, will find himself tasked with the unappealing prospect of being the guy who was at the wheel when Queen’s Park disemboweled the city’s transit system.
As the member of council in charge of inter-government relations, he’ll be forced to cut bad-smelling deals on his next-mandate pledges – e.g., completing the LRT network promised for Scarborough.
That idea — which lands at executive committee next week without a funding source – is premised on the (call me crazy!) notion that LRTs run above ground, and can serve more people and more neighbourhoods.
Tory said he’ll seek funds from the provincial and federal governments. But I’m not seeing how the mayor will get his clutches on provincial dollars from a premier who hates LRTs and said yesterday that he’d likely bury extensions to the Eglinton Crosstown. And all this while the bureaucratic surgeons at Queen’s Park and the City of Toronto attempt to perform a subway-echtomy on the TTC – an operation that you’ve got to know will take years, and could well kill the patient.
Point is, Ford will put a price on anything the city wants, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Relief Line is the project that becomes the hooded, whimpering hostage in this shit-show.
Indeed, I’d propose that the best way to look at that $5 billion transit promise is to see it as nothing but a giant pile of bargaining chips, all with strings attached. It’s anything but welcome news.
photo by Frank Gunn/CP