We learned a lot about the mayor and his allies from the Gardiner debate. Above all, they represent more of the same.
It might be an understatement to write that many members of City Council are simply not interested in facts, evidence, and expert opinion. In fact, it often seems a significant faction of Council is uninterested in anything that might be particularly useful in governance beyond a healthy regard for one’s own long-term political prospects, whatever the cost to public policy. It’s a conclusion one must come to after witnessing the past two days of Council deliberations over the future of the eastern Gardiner, where we bore witness to numerous demonstrations of dishonesty and ineptitude from the mayor’s office and his allies on Council. But if these individuals do not want to discuss the policy evidence before them in good faith, then we must consider what their actions say about governance and political leadership at City Hall, and why Torontonians should consequently be concerned.
Going into the Tory-era, there were a number of open questions about how the new administration would operate, particularly since his campaign was something of a cipher.
How would the mayor’s office approach policy issues and work to build consensus on council? Who would his supporters be, and what skills and perspectives would they offer? What would the governance philosophy look like, and what would that say about the administration’s priorities and values?
With the Gardiner debate, the Tory team has given us answers.
Mark Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) whined that his ward had “horrific” transit to justify keeping up the elevated eastern portion of the Gardiner, seemingly forgetting that he supported the killing of Transit City—which would have included a waterfront LRT along Lakeshore Boulevard in his ward. Grimes’ council BFF Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) likewise claimed that since congestion was Toronto’s worst problem, we needed to build transit—and therefore needed the hybrid option. Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport) invoked the “St. Clair Disaster,” which has exactly nothing to do with the Gardiner decision, but saying “St. Clair Disaster” has become a magic phrase for do-nothing councillors. You just say it anytime you’re challenged to improve infrastructure in this city, and Newstalk 1010 will give you a pat on the head and a cookie.
Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1, Etobicoke North) contradicted the experts Council brought in to discuss the environmental and economic impacts of the respective plans. Instead he employed the grade school argument that removal would so be worse. This followed the lead of parks and environment chair Michelle Berardinetti’s (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) arguments from earlier in the week, where she claimed the elevated expressway is better for the environment. Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12, York South-Weston) asked city staff to talk about how some cities has dealt with additional congestion from removing elevated expressways, but also asked them not to mention New York and San Francisco—cities that have done so successfully. Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence), the TTC chair, put forward a motion to study the feasibility of selling the Gardiner to a private company so somebody else, certainly not Josh Colle, could put tolls on the Gardiner.
Christin Carmichael Greb (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence), a newbie councillor who has spoken two or three times this term, read erroneous talking points about jobs. Jon Burnside (Ward 26, Don Valley West) rejected the numbers offered by City staff about morning rush hour commuters, and offered his own. Stephen Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) offered an earnest presentation against removing the eastern Gardiner, and added that Toronto would become a laughingstock for doing what many other cities have done entirely successfully. Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough-Agincourt) called the Gardiner “the heart of the city.” (We would have picked a different organ. Like the appendix, because you can remove it and get ice cream.)
And of course, there was the spectacle of Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) and Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), who had another duel to be recognized as the most useless and self-aggrandizing councillor of them all. Both began asking about the feasibility of digging a giant tunnel and burying the Gardiner, as if a critical infrastructure vote was the appropriate time to start discussing a project which cost would run into the tens of billions of dollars. But the Tory team needed the votes from these chaos agents, and so included a sop to tunnelling in their preferred motion, which itself was structured in an unorthodox way that would make Hank Hill say they were playing lawyer ball.
Councillors spouted falsehoods (like the “10-minute” increase in traffic wait times, which Berardinetti mentioned on the council floor), and cited polls paid for by developer First Gulf and conducted by Nick Kouvalis’s firm, rather than the independent one that showed a preference for the boulevard option. None of them addressed the elephant in the room, which is that the Gardiner East is simply not a heavily used road. During rush hour, it is sparsely populated compared to any of the city’s other major throughways.
If you drive it regularly, it’s obvious why this is the case: most of the people who drive downtown via the Don Valley Parkway choose to exit before the Gardiner, because the Gardiner is too far south for them to use, and using the Gardiner to loop around south and come up one of the major north-south downtown arteries like Yonge, University or Spadina just means fighting with the traffic coming from the more heavily used western half of the Gardiner.
No councillor can say she or he lacked this information. Indeed, Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth) brought pictures. And yet, they still voted to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, lose out of hundreds of millions of dollars more in lost revenues, risk lawsuits from developers, and for what? Two to three minutes in additional travel time?
But when we say that, we miss the big picture. Because the hybrid option was, inevitably, John Tory’s preference, and how this process went down tells you everything you really need to know about how John Tory’s mayoralty will go.
We had it confirmed that John Tory treats the mayor’s office like a political party machine. The talking points uniformly spouted by the councillors loyal to him, the stench of Nick Kouvalis, the assemblance of friendly lobbyists—all of this speaks to organized, command-driven, party-line politics. The fact that he was clearly upset that Jennifer Keesmaat dared to contradict him in public (he could not even deny that he had tried to silence her when asked about that allegation) demonstrates that Tory seems to believe that he has some sort of authority over her responsibilities to the public—and it is eminently believable, given his extensive corporate executive background, that he would consider her “his” employee on some level.
But more important than Tory’s tactics in this political fight was his inspiration, and it is what got him this gig in the first place: John Tory is Mr. Status Quo, the do-nothingest of do-nothing candidates. He will talk your ear off about change, of course, because every politician has to do that in order to look Serious, and Tory cares a great deal about looking Serious. But what was marketed as change was effectively an expensive but very slight modification to the existing Gardiner East as the “hybrid” option. (His speech to the Empire Club, featuring at least 36 falsehoods or misleading statements by our count, was illustrative in this regard.)
Ultimately, John Tory’s base looks at present-day Toronto and says “more of the same,” because John Tory’s base is wealthy and satisfied. The mayor rode to electoral victory thanks to the people who are already doing well in Toronto, and more of the same, for them, means more of them doing well. Tory has chosen to try to deliver what his base expects; councillors loyal to Tory work in lockstep towards that.
The so-called hybrid option is more of the same. Talking about how important transit and housing and all those other things are, that’s more of the same too, especially if you don’t have the political courage to raise new revenue to support that rhetoric. Raising property taxes more than inflation wouldn’t be more of the same, after all, and the mayor of the status quo cannot tolerate that. And if you use that meaningless Serious Talk as an excuse to avoid real and needed change, that’s even more of the same than usual.
That set of priorities should worry people who want a better, more livable, and just city. Because next year, Toronto’s will have another budget shortfall, and sooner or later council will break through its debt ceiling due to bad spending decisions like the Scarborough subway extension and re-building the elevated east Gardiner, and the City will face truly difficult decisions. At that point “more of the same” will be insufficient—or, if we’re being honest, will mean more of the same for Tory’s base and a lot less for everybody else. We would say that at that point, John Tory will have to make a difficult choice—except that it’s fairly obvious he’s already made it.