The era of good feelings between Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory was never going to last.
Never mind that Wynne greeted Tory’s election win over Doug Ford and Olivia Chow with a “hallelujah” in October 2014, or that several members of Wynne’s cabinet endorsed Tory in his mayoral run that year. Never mind also that both Wynne and Tory spent two years trying to show what a positive, collaborative relationship between a premier and mayor could look like. In the way of Toronto mayors and Ontario premiers, the friendship has largely fallen apart in the last six months, as Tory demands more money for transit and affordable housing, and still, perhaps, harbours a grudge over how the government shut down his request to be allowed to toll two Toronto-owned expressways. (In a nutshell: He went out on a political limb, with Wynne’s encouragement; she sawed the limb out from under him.)
The acrimony between a mayor of Toronto and the premier isn’t new, but now it’s factoring into both opposition parties’ election planning in a way that it hasn’t since the Liberals first won in 2003.
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Tory went so far, last week, as to mail all MPPs representing ridings in Toronto, demanding they champion Toronto’s interests (and not, the implication went, simply the interests of the Liberal party). In response, Etobicoke-Lakeshore MPP Peter Milczyn — himself a former city councillor, now a loyal member of the Ontario Liberal caucus — convened a “technical briefing” on Friday to give reporters a rundown of the various forms of support the province has provided the city.
There were some legitimate points in Milczyn’s presentation (as provided afterwards to TVO.org), including the fact that one of the single largest contributions to Toronto Community Housing — refinancing the massive affordable housing agency’s mortgages — was done through Infrastructure Ontario. TCH bears the debts and makes the payments on them, but those payments are lower in part because of the province’s help.
Who gets the credit for something like that? There are reasonable arguments for either or both, but in the meantime TCH reported on Monday that it needs $402 million next year, more than half of which is just for planned repairs.
Behind the numbers, of course, are the politics, and the opposition parties have been paying attention.
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The New Democrats and leader Andrea Horwath have been most explicit: if they form government, Horwath assured Tory last month, they would commit to fully funding one-third of TCH’s capital plan. This isn’t just electoral calculation: the NDP have opposed the provincial downloading of social housing to Toronto since the Mike Harris government forced the city to take responsibility for it in the 1990s, arguing the financial burden is simply too great for municipalities dependent on the property tax base. But there’s definitely some calculation involved as well, as Horwath looks to win back some of the seats her party lost in Toronto in 2014, and perhaps a few more on top of those.
The Tories have been more circumspect in their support for Toronto, saying that a government led by Patrick Brown would be in a better position to help the city because the Tories would run a tighter ship, budget-wise, than the Liberals. Brown told CBC he was “open” to helping fund TCH, but unlike Horwath made no firm commitments.
On the face of it, attempting to crack the Liberal Fortress Toronto seems like a fool’s errand. The party currently holds all but three of the city’s seats (the NDP has two and the PCs one). Federally, it's Liberal across the board.
Neither opposition party expects a rout in Toronto — nor is that their objective. Rather, the goal is instead to capitalize on softening Liberal support and make incremental gains, starting with the broader Toronto region and working in to the city itself. Similarly, neither opposition party expects anything as explicit as John Tory’s formal endorsement in the provincial election — they’re simply happy to see the mayor and premier going hammer-and-tong at each other, with the expectation that a bruised Liberal brand is good for their chances.
A Forum Research poll showing the Liberals tied for first place with the Tories in the 416 is, in this sense, incredibly good news for the latter: if the PCs are pulling even with Wynne’s party in her hometown, it's a sign the Liberal vote is collapsing in the rest of the province. The same is more or less true for the NDP: Beating the Liberals in Toronto would be nice, but winning the GTA suburbs and beyond is the path to a majority.
The same math explains why the Liberals haven’t, for the most part, been sweating this fight with Tory. The only scenario in which the Liberals need to fight for Toronto seats is if they’ve already conceded any hope of winning in the rest of the province. It also hasn’t hurt any governing party, historically, to be seen as skeptical of Toronto’s complaints (especially as the Liberals can claim a record of substantial spending on projects like the Eglinton Crosstown transit line). But Milczyn’s press conference last week — and his admission that Tory’s message was getting more airtime than Wynne’s — suggests that this calculus might be changing.
For Toronto — and more specifically, residents of social housing or passengers on public transit there — it’s not clear that there’s any upside to all this. If the Liberals promise huge sums of money to Toronto in next year’s budget, it will only be in the context of a looming election campaign, and thus far from stable. If they don’t, the city might get the New Democrats in power with their promises to help fund the city’s needs — or they might get the Progressive Conservatives, with a very different history of relations with the 416.