We've long complained we don't have control over our own affairs. Now the province is handing us responsibility for a major decision on a silver platter, and Rob Ford's handing it right back.
This morning Bob Chiarelli, Ontario’s transportation minister, addressed a full house at the Toronto Board of Trade. He was there to talk infrastructure, and specifically transit infrastructure, our city’s favourite topic of conversation these days. Not much new came out of it: predictably, he blamed the Tories under Harris for stalling development with their fill-in-the-Eglinton-hole decision; predictably, he repeated earlier assurances that the $8.4 billion the province has promised to Toronto for transit projects is still safe.
Slightly less predictably, he called our mayor a failure.
Speaking to media once his official remarks were done, Chiarelli said:
In Ontario, council is supreme. Council makes the decisions. The mayor’s role is to demonstrate leadership, demonstrate consensus-building, be able to move with public consensus. The best mayors are ones who can be facilitative in nature, because they do not have the power to do things on their own… That’s the reality. That’s the difficulty and the challenge of being a mayor in Ontario—that you’ve got to build consensus. You’ve got to be able to get the votes at council. That’s your job: to lead by building that consensus and moving forward.
There have been many, many mayors who have been able to change city council. There have been many mayors who’ve had support of city council and lost it. The art of being a mayor in Ontario is the art of building consensus and moving forward with the votes on council.
Of course, immediately after one journalist asked if Chiarelli was saying Rob Ford is a failure, and he gave a standard politician’s reply: “I’m not going to comment on the mayor’s performance.” But he just had, and everyone in the room knew it.
That Ford has entirely bungled the transit file is hardly news, though higher orders of government aren’t often so blunt about making that assessment. What is more interesting is that, at least so far, the province isn’t doing what higher orders of government often do, and using that as an excuse to seize as much power as it can. Also this morning, Chiarelli said:
City council’s going to have to self-impose its own deadline. City council is elected by the people of Toronto, they are accountable to the people of Toronto, and it is their decision to make. It would be fair to say that it’s an admission of failure on the part of this city council, the whole administration, if they say “we can’t do our job, bail us out.”
Municipalities in Canada, Toronto foremost among them, are wont to complain, loudly and often, that they are the orphan stepchild of governance—”creatures of the province,” lacking robust taxation powers, in our case forced to deal with a strange beast called the OMB when it comes to simple development appeals. There is a great deal of truth here: Canada is now anchored by major urban centres and hasn’t adapted its governments to suit that relatively new reality. But here, at least, is a case of a provincial government handing us—the City of Toronto—leadership of an important issue on a silver platter. Ford’s response thus far: demur, deflect responsibility, diminish our own role by saying we can just provide advice but the province actually calls the shots.
As it turns out, Queen’s Park doesn’t want to call the shots. This isn’t, mind you, a sign of charity or altruism or some high-minded sense of duty to let Toronto chart its own course. The transit debate is a decades-old quagmire, and they’d like to keep as clear of the mud as they possibly can. It’s very hard to wade into Toronto transit planning and come out looking good; from the province’s point of view, they aren’t so much ceding power as passing the buck on a problem nobody’s been able to solve. They bungled, badly, when they let Ford rewrite the terms of their agreement and jettison a light rail network in favour of a buried Eglinton line, and they bungled again when they let a year go by before noticing that city council hadn’t ratified that decision. So they are washing their hands of things, and leaving us to our own devices.
Ford should take them up on it anyway. Transit planning is an utter mess, with a long and toxic history, and he has only made it worse. But there are compromises that could be struck: if council’s self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives are calling for a sales tax to pay for transit, and council’s centrists were willing to trade an at-grade LRT on Eglinton for Ford’s subway on Sheppard (as they were a few weeks ago, before the special council meeting on transit), there’s clearly room movement on both sides, if only Ford showed some willingness to embrace negotiation.
More importantly, there are precedents to be set. If Toronto, somehow, can get it together long enough to agree on a transit plan and make it stick, that’s the best possible case we can make that we are, in fact, a mature order of government that ought to have greater latitude to control our own affairs than we currently do. A majority of councillors have shown, and continue to show, that they are capable of this. They built a consensus around the waterfront. They built one around changes to Ford’s budget, around the light rail plan, and most recently around a more measured approach to the sell-off of TCHC property. Ford needs to stop throwing temper tantrums and realize that, though they may have their own cynical reasons for wanting to stay out of it, the province has given him the greatest gift a politician could ask for: the opportunity to rescue an important policy, and the ability to claim ownership of that victory.
If our mayor doesn’t want that chance, he should get out of the way of his colleagues on council who do.