Toronto Centre is Going to the Polls Tomorrow
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Toronto Centre is Going to the Polls Tomorrow

By-election candidates at the Cabbagetown debate (left to right): Pamela Taylor (PC), Stefan Premdas (Green), moderator Ian McPhail, Cathy Crowe (NDP), and Glen Murray (Liberal).

As the municipal elections campaign heats up, another campaign is also underway in Toronto: a by-election in the riding of Toronto Centre for MPP.
Toronto Centre is a patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with distinct political interests. The riding includes Rosedale, Regent Park, Cabbagetown, St. Jamestown, the Church and Wellesley village, and a portion of the financial district. Often described as a Liberal stronghold, the riding has been controlled by George Smitherman since 1999, when the riding lines were redrawn and Toronto Centre was born. Smitherman stepped down January 1 to launch his mayoral campaign, and so began the race to replace him. The vote is tomorrow, February 4.
The four major candidates met this past Sunday to present their platforms before a packed gymnasium at the Cabbagetown Youth Centre. Three major themes defined the debate: healthcare, the HST, and housing. Here is your overview of the candidates and the issues.

The Candidates

Glen Murray (Liberal)
Quotable moment: “I’m the only person at this table who has ever run a government.”
Murray is a political heavyweight; he has based his campaign on the strength of his extensive experience and McGuinty’s enthusiastic blessing. As former mayor of Winnipeg, Murray comes with significant leadership experience, though no article about him fails to mention that he is (by political standards at least) relatively new to Toronto, having lived here for six or seven years. Rumour has it he is favoured to enter McGuinty’s cabinet in an imminent ministerial shuffle.
Murray’s platform focuses on the environment and housing, with an emphasis on locally controlled development. Despite his community-based background, his solutions are largely bound by the rules of the Liberal game—he is simply not as free as the non-Liberal candidates to roundly criticize the political status quo. His main defence of Liberal policies: “Our record isn’t perfect, but I think it’s better than any other.”

Cathy Crowe (NDP) and Glen Murray (Liberal).

Cathy Crowe (NDP)
Quotable moment: “I’m not a politician—I’m a nurse.”
Crowe is a celebrated street nurse and community activist who has lived in Toronto Centre for twenty-five years. She shifted to politics because Queen’s Park is “where I need to be to create solutions for you in this riding.”
Her campaign slogan is “Ours to Save,” playing off of Ontario’s “Yours to Discover” motto. Her platform focuses on a set of issue “hotspots”: the HST, protecting Toronto Grace Hospital, housing, poverty, and children. As a long-time activist, Crowe’s perspective is entirely bottom up. Despite this, she is aware of the political climate and able to propose well-formulated, if not lofty, solutions to social problems.

Pamela Taylor (PC).

Pamela Taylor (PC)
Quotable moment: She’s “the politician who never went away.”
Taylor is a community advocate and part-time lawyer who ran in the riding in 2007 (she took second place with 20%). She is on the board of the Fred Victor Centre and has worked extensively in St. Jamestown.
Taylor’s platform echoes many of the other candidates’, focusing on homelessness, the arts, small business, and healthcare. As you’d expect, she highlights the need for fiscal responsibility, criticizing the McGuinty government for misspending in times of recession. While the thrust of her platform is top-down economic efficiency, Taylor is refreshingly aware of low-income issues.

Stefan Premdas (Green).

Stefan Premdas (Green)
Quotable moment: “I came out of the Green closet.”
The youngest of the four candidates, Premdas has a strong personal connection to the riding. He has worked with the Out of the Cold program, church choirs, and St. Michael’s Hospital. He is currently an employment consultant on diversity and disability issues.
Many of Premdas’s proposals begin with finding savings through green technology, which could in turn fund social programs and generate employment. He also proposes merging Toronto’s school boards and eliminating income tax for those who earn less than thirty thousand dollars per year. While enthusiastic, Premdas is a bit of a political neophyte. His community record is strong, but his ability to frame political issues lacks a certain finesse.
Two minor candidates presented at the debate, but did not participate in the question period: Raj Rama (Independent), who proposed entrepreneurial visas to promote immigration and development; and Wayne Simmons (Freedom Party), who proposed an opt-out clause in OHIP coverage. Heath Thomas (Libertarian) and John Turmel (Independent) didn’t show up.

The Issues

The HST was omnipresent, sneaking its way into the non-Liberal candidates’ replies to most constituents’ questions. These candidates were quick to condemn the HST as salt in the riding’s economic wound, arguing that community development would be hampered by the added cost of the HST. As Crowe acknowledged, “I think with almost every question you can go back to: what the heck is the HST going to do to this issue?”
Murray defended the HST as a necessary shift from income to consumer taxation, calling it “revenue neutral at worst.” He also urged the audience to accept the HST as a “sacrifice for the next generation” and “the price of democracy” that would provide for more enhanced services in the long run.
Taylor countered Murray’s argument for more effective taxation, claiming that a consumption tax hits the poor the hardest. Murray, in turn, claimed that 83% of consumer spending would remain unaffected.
Housing was the hottest local issue on the table: all of the candidates are both personally and politically committed to the availability of decent, affordable living space.
This is Crowe’s forte, and she went head-to-head with Murray on the Liberals’ funding record here. Murray claimed that the government is spending an unprecedented amount on housing and is now looking for ways to speed up repairs. Crowe accused the government of sitting on unspent funding, neglecting infrastructure repair, and leaving tenants in “horrific conditions.” Taylor, meanwhile, called Toronto Community Housing “severely broken” because of a lack of accountability. Premdas proposed lowering rents by hydro costs through more efficient energy use.
Healthcare issues surfaced several times, notably around the rumoured closure of the Toronto Grace Hospital. (On January 27 the Salvation Army announced it would no longer run the facility, and the hospital’s future is uncertain.) Crowe was forceful about the need to save Grace, accusing the Liberals of already closing down two hospitals in the riding. Murray answered her directly: “Grace is not going to close.” He continued, “It is a clear commitment from all of use to keep the Grace open…I will put that on the record.”
Crowe and Taylor complained of Liberal de-listing of OHIP services, including chiropracty and physical therapy. Taylor called funding “erratic at best,” and proposed a more systematic and efficient means of covering healthcare needs. As the mascot of misspending, eHealth also took its requisite blows .

The Vote

So what is this by-election about? If it is about sending the best community advocate to Queen’s Park, then all of the candidates are arguably qualified. If it is about “sending a message” to Queen’s Park, then the dissatisfied will pick from the non-Liberal pool.
If the crowd at the debate was any indication, locals are unhappy with the Liberals. But based on voting history and scuttlebutt from the various candidates’ camps, it is also quite likely that the complaints don’t run too deep and the riding will, as observers have predicted all along, go to Murray.
Photos by David Topping/Torontoist.