The John Tory and Olivia Chow Debate Recap: The Empire Club Strikes Back
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The John Tory and Olivia Chow Debate Recap: The Empire Club Strikes Back

Highlights and low blows—and some actual policy, too.

The Rob and Doug Ford radio/TV/YouTube show may be no more, but the 2014 mayoral election has plenty of debates, debates, debates. Some subjects are broader than others, some are notable for including candidates beyond the three major contenders. Some are held in church basements, others in formal ballrooms. But because there are so many, you may just not have time to follow them all.

Which is where we come in. For your catch-up needs, here is a recap of Friday afternoon’s debate at the Empire Club. It featured John Tory and Olivia Chow, but not Doug Ford. He withdrew a couple of hours beforehand because—so went his press release—”it came to my attention that the luncheon at the Empire Club is not open to all people, with tickets costing $800 a table. $800, that is more money than some families make in a week!”

Presumably these are the same “average, hardworking people” who saw their parks and recreation user fees raised by 23.1 per cent from 2011 to 2013—a policy that Ford supported—although it made access to City programs less financially accessible. Maybe these are the same average people to whom Doug sold $100 bobble heads to raise money for his brother’s campaign. Or maybe they’re the same average people paying $250 to attend a fundraiser for Doug next week. Who knows?

The point is, Ford did not participate in this debate, and while he should be roundly criticized for the decision, it was likely calmer and more informative without his fabulism.

On we go.

12:45: The debate is hosted by Newstalk 1010’s Ryan Doyle, and he outlines the very simple format. One candidate will speak, and then the other, preferably at separate times. Can you taste the excitement? Maybe that’s just the chicken lunch.

12:47: The first question goes to John Tory, who is asked about job creation. Doyle correctly says that most job creation comes from economic growth, and mayors—let alone premiers or prime ministers—have very little control over the business cycle. Given this, can he truly deliver on the job-creation promises he’s made in his campaign?

It’s a question that fits Tory like a Harry Rosen suit. He says that the City needs to attract jobs to the region, and he can do that as mayor. He speaks confidently, and the crowd is clearly partial to the candidate, with some nodding their heads along in agreement as if he was playing a concert.

Olivia Chow gives much the same answer as Tory, but adds that the City should use more community benefits agreements to ensure local needs are met by businesses. Her answer sounds a lot like an echo from the first half of her campaign, where she co-opted the language of business and efficiency to appeal to this kind of crowd. They are not won over.


“We cannot build public transit without actually paying for it.”

Olivia Chow

12:51: Tory decries the “big stifling hand of government” he says Chow favours. Presumably this is in contrast to the well-moisturized and smooth hand of the free market.

He adds that businesses hate government paperwork. Tory clearly knows his audience, because this crowd claps with hands that appreciate the free market and do not like flipping through paper.

12:55: After questioning Tory’s and Ford’s transit funding plans in passing, Chow tells the audience an inconvenient truth: “We cannot build public transit without actually paying for it.”

True. Unfortunately no major candidate, including Chow herself, has committed to the dedicated transit revenue tools that would make a meaningful difference: a regional sales tax, congestion fee, or parking levy.

12:57: Responding to a question about gridlock, Tory defends the proposed Scarborough subway extension, saying that it’s rare that all three orders of government agree on something, and the City should move on. He conveniently neglects to mention that, at $1.5 billion more than the LRT plan, the subway would serve a smaller stretch of the City and put the municipal government on the hook for cost overruns.


Related:

Subway vs LRT: You Do the Math on Scarborough Transit


Another thing he conveniently fails to mention: this time last year, he held a somewhat different view on the subject. Here he is on Newstalk 1010, speaking with co-host John Moore:

“What [transit engineers and planners] did when they produced the numbers was produce numbers that justified, for sure, an LRT. A subway in Scarborough, in fairness, is kind of barely justifiable, but it is barely justifiable.”

So, from “barely justifiable” to a “good long term investment” then. This subway really does travel fast.

12:58: There is a clear early pattern to this debate. In their initial response to questions, Tory and Chow state their familiar talking points and policy proposals. In the ensuing two-minute free-for-all, there’s a tendency for Chow to use the first minute to raise a number of questions about Tory’s policies, and for Tory to spend the next minute responding. The result is that the debate takes the form of scrutinizing Tory’s platform more than it does a presentation of competing visions for the city.

12:59: Chow directly confronts Tory about SmartTrack—the centrepiece of his transit plan—asking how many houses or community centres will have to be razed along the Eglinton West portion to allow for its construction, and how many kilometres of tunnelling will have to be paid for, which was not in his original budgeting.

Chow is having it both ways here, because houses or community centres won’t need to be razed if SmartTrack is tunnelled underneath them.

However, at $300 million a kilometre, the cost of tunnelling is substantial; along the Eglinton West stretch it would add around $3 billion to the project. To give some context to the magnitude of this oversight, for that amount of money you could build: the full east-west Waterfront LRT, the Jane LRT, the Malvern Extension to the Scarborough LRT, and still have enough money left over to make the TTC fully accessible.

After the debate, a Chow operative tells Torontoist that their campaign is hoping to make SmartTrack what the Million Jobs Plan was to Tim Hudak—the death knell of his campaign.

1:00: Pushing back, Tory says Chow tries to find reasons not to do things, and says that if it were up to her, the Yonge Street subway would never have been built in the 1950s—conveniently avoiding her actual question. In case Tory has time, Torontoist has a number of its own questions for SmartTrack.

1:02: Turnabout is fair play, and Tory questions the gaps in Chow’s transit proposal for improved bus and streetcar service. And he’s right, it has significant gaps that need to be addressed.

That said, the shortcomings in Chow’s plan are an order of magnitude smaller than Tory’s. This is in part because Tory’s proposal is much bigger, but also because Chow’s plan builds on existing TTC policy. However, this does not excuse each mayoral candidate for the same basic sin: demanding that the other acknowledge the shortcomings in their transit plan while they are unwilling to do the same for their own.

1:06: Chow goes after Tory for not supporting the TTC’s service improvement plan, and Tory says she mischaracterizes him. He says he supports the TTC plan, if funding is included as a part of the proposal.

This, Chow argues, highlights his ignorance about how City Hall works. The transit commission, like all municipal agencies and departments, makes policy recommendations, to which costs are attached. Whether and how to fund those policies is a question that is handled via the budget process, resulting in a budget (which may or may not pay for what those agencies and departments asked for) that is voted on by council.

It’s been a common theme in this campaign: Tory’s team has little experience crafting municipal policy, and it shows. Conversely, while the Chow team is more knowledgeable about local policy, it has consistently lagged behind Tory in communicating effectively.

1:08: Tory then asks where the money for Chow’s proposed bus expansion will come from, and says it represents a $500-million hole in her budgeting. Chow replies that she has offered some funding proposals for bus and streetcar expansion, including raising the land transfer tax on houses that are sold for more than $2 million.

On the one hand—and as Tory has pointed out before—this is money that her campaign has pledged to spend several times over, on everything from transit to environmental initiatives. This has been a recurring problem with Chow’s platform, which also allocates savings from building an LRT rather than a subway in Scarborough to several other projects at once.

On the other hand, as Chow points out, Tory is using a misleading number, combining the operating and capital costs for the plan. (Operating costs cover day-to-day running of the buses—gas and drivers and so forth—while capital costs cover infrastructure items like the purchase of the buses themselves and the construction of bus garages.)

In short: Chow doesn’t actually have a $500-million hole—Tory is artificially inflating that number—though she still has a significant funding gap which she hasn’t accounted for, and a bad habit of spending the same money in several places simultaneously.

At which point, Tory says, “Money is money,” and the business crowd claps.

1:20: After Chow makes an argument about the importance of experience, Tory challenges her to explain why the city is in such a mess despite having so many experienced councillors in office. She argues that problems are created by empty promises, and tries to link Tory to Ford in this respect: “We got into a mess because four years ago we were told that you can get subways by not paying a penny for it… We’re seeing it again, four years later, where Mr. Ford [and] Mr. Tory say, ‘Ah, we’ll build you something… and don’t worry, you don’t have to pay a single penny, and somehow it will magically appear.'”

While it is true that a substantial number of Torontonians appear to have voters’ remorse for electing Rob Ford, it is unusual for a candidate to blame it on the very people she is trying to win over.


“I would like to make very clear that I would not reduce the size of the police complement.”

John Tory

1:22: Moving on to police issues, Chow says the Toronto Police Service’s budget is too high, and proposes a new shift alignment (going from a 28-hour day to a 24-hour day) designed to reduce staffing costs. TPS is the City’s largest budget item, and per capita policing cost increases have been double the rate of inflation over the last four years.

Tory: “First of all, I would like to make very clear that I would not reduce the size of the police complement.” He adds that he believes one of the reasons why the crime rate is so low is precisely because we have so many police officers.

That would mean little progress on reshaping the police budget, 89 per cent of which goes to staffing.

Tory goes on to say that something like re-negotiating the shift alignment is unrealistic, because it would have to be negotiated through the collective bargaining process. But that process will be one of the first big tasks for the next mayor: the current collective agreement expires on December 31. If the next mayor is unable to achieve gains on this file, then their flexibility on the operating budget in other divisions could be significantly constrained over the course of the term.

1:30: Tory makes the pitch that he is best positioned to co-operate with the federal and provincial governments when it comes to funding Toronto. It’s an argument he’s been increasingly making in the past few weeks, and for good reason: with Doug Ford to his right and Olivia Chow to his left, it’s one of his most compelling arguments for office.

1:34: On a question about the arts, Chow begins her answer with, “As a visual artist…” The woman in front of me facepalms. This crowd doesn’t want to elect a visual artist.

1:43: On a question about the downtown/suburban divide, Tory proposes that a few times a year council goes to various parts of the city to hear from people there. This is an underdeveloped version of a good idea, and all candidates should give it serious thought.

1:45: Answering the same question, Chow gives a passionate plea to focus on inequities in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods, most of which are located in the city’s inner suburbs. She cites a recent report finding that 29 per cent of Toronto’s children live in poverty, and says, “I am the only candidate in this election talking about those neighbourhoods that have been left behind… They have been left behind for four years already. It’s enough. It’s time we invest in them, it’s time we create a fairer, more caring city, a better city for everyone.”

It’s the closest Chow comes to stating her vision for the city, and it is also indicative of the pivot her campaign made after Labour Day to more traditional left-wing language in the hopes of turning around her poll numbers.

She receives stifled applause.

1:47: John Tory says that Matt Galloway referred to Olivia Chow’s TTC service expansion funding as a “shell game.” Which is true. Chow retorts that during Tory’s own interview with Galloway, he deflected funding questions for four minutes. Which is true.

Campaigns are not the time for introspection.

1:55: And we’re out. John Tory had a debate on home turf, and despite Olivia Chow’s best efforts to point out flaws in his policy proposals, based on the audience’s reaction, he came out the clear winner.

As always, thanks for reading, Raccoon Nation.

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