Was it really only last year that the new Ontario government under Doug Ford and the Toronto city council under Mayor John Tory were in court, having a battle royale over the premier’s attempt to cut council in half?
Was it really only a few months ago that the mayor was going door to door in Toronto neighbourhoods, blasting the premier for his ill-advised and retroactive cuts to municipal public-health services?
The answer to both, of course, is yes. And, yet, on an issue of tremendous interest to both men — namely, the future of tens of billions of dollars in investment in public transit in Ontario’s capital city — quiet, steady progress has led to a deal with which both sides seem content.
For several years, under three different leaders, the Progressive Conservatives have made taking ownership of the Toronto Transit Commission one of their top priorities. The subways are considered the crown jewels of the province’s public-transit systems, and provincial Tories have wanted to get their hands on that system for years.
That position was always a non-starter for city politicians, who feared that the province wouldn’t be nearly as responsive to the TTC’s needs as could the level of government closest to the people.
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And Ford was nothing if not adamant that, once he took over running things, uploading ownership of those subways to provincial control would be a fait accompli.
But a funny thing happened on the way to commission headquarters at Yonge and Davisville, in midtown Toronto. Facing the prospect of years of court battles, negative publicity, and endless provincial-municipal fights, the premier’s thinking on this issue apparently evolved to the point that he’s made a deal with the city that will see Mayor Tory and his council retain ownership of their public-transit system.
How we got there is a story worth telling. As with so much of what passes for progress in politics, a number of positive things had to happen at the same time to get to the finish line. And, remarkably, they did.
The $30 billion deal leaves the TTC’s ownership in the hands of the city, which Tory and his council wanted. But it gives Ford’s government ultimate say on the path and construction of the new relief line (the “Ontario Line”), the Scarborough subway, the Eglinton West LRT, and the Yonge Street subway extension north into York Region, all of which were important to the premier and, in past practice, would have fallen within the purview of the city.
The deal also frees up $5 billion of city money that can now go to maintaining the existing system, plus building the Eglinton East LRT and the Waterfront LRT.
Perhaps the most important factor in coming to this deal was the decision by both the premier and the mayor to have expert transportation officials do the heavy lifting in the negotiations — and to hold those negotiations behind closed doors, not in the media. The premier and the mayor trusted Toronto’s city manager (Chris Murray), the head of the TTC (Rick Leary), and the province’s lead transit expert (Michael Lindsay) to get the job done, and the politicians contributed by keeping the temperature low, resisting the temptation to make headlines, and offering occasional direction as needed.
In essence, they all took the politics out of the negotiations. And both sides conceded something in order to get the deal. Ford gave up his wish to own and control the TTC. Tory had to manage a faction of his council that wanted to damn the torpedoes and fight the province at every turn.
Furthermore, a highly placed source at city hall confirmed that transportation minister Caroline Mulroney proved to be very consultative and constructive during the negotiations, a significant departure from the way Queen’s Park did business with the capital city during the first year of Ford’s administration.
Mulroney’s introduction to politics was about as rough as it gets, and she sustained widespread criticism. As the minister for francophone affairs, she carried the can for the cancellation of a new French-language university and the elimination of a stand-alone French-language commissioner’s office.
As attorney general, she stood beside Ford and said nothing as the premier promised to set aside charter rights and use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to overturn any negative court decision related to cutting Toronto council in half. Even worse, her father, Brian, the former prime minister, held a news conference in Ottawa that same day in which he said there were no circumstances under which he would ever have used that clause when he was PM. And a former PC premier, Bill Davis, one of the fathers of the new Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, also made a rare public statement decrying Ford’s potential use of the notwithstanding clause under those circumstances.
All of which is to say, it was trial by fire for Mulroney, a rookie minister, whom my city hall source described as “very smart and very collegial” in these transit negotiations. City council still has to approve this deal, and, while nothing is ever a slam dunk in politics, there’s every indication approval is in the offing.
My first full-time job in journalism was as a Toronto city hall reporter in the early 1980s. The often-established pattern at city hall was that, if you wanted anything of significance from Queen’s Park, you had to make a huge public stink about it. Former North York mayor (and eventual megacity mayor) Mel Lastman was the master at shaming the province into giving his municipality what he wanted.
Tory has indicated that he can go that route where necessary. But his disposition and personality are more suited to calm, steady progress. “One of the reasons I believe I was decisively re-elected [in 2018] is because people could see in my first four years a willingness and an ability to work together with other governments on key issues like transit and housing,” the mayor said yesterday in a speech.
Ford, demonstrating a kinder, gentler side not much in evidence during his first year in office, said in a statement, “I look forward to continuing our productive discussions with the City of Toronto to finalize an arrangement that will help us build more transit faster and provide a seamless and improved transit experience for riders throughout the GTHA.”
In some respects, this deal is a vindication of Tory’s preferred approach: if you keep your head down and focus on moving the ball down the field, “the universe will unfold as it should” (one of the mayor’s favourite expressions), and you may just find yourself in the end zone, having scored a touchdown.
It may not be as exciting or headline-inducing as Lastman’s way of doing business, but, as Tory’s favourite mentor Bill Davis used to say, “Bland works.”
It certainly did this time, on this file.