Liberal leadership hopeful Steven Del Duca is offering ideas, not apologies

OPINION: The former cabinet member is running to be the next leader of his party. But can he walk away from the mistakes he made as a minister in the last government?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 24, 2019
Ontario politician Steven Del Duca
Steven Del Duca served as Ontario’s minister of transportation from 2014 to 2018. (Chris Young/CP)

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The fact that Steven Del Duca is bothering to propose any policies at all is kind of presumptuous, really.

The Ontario Liberal Party is currently light years from wielding actual political power again. Reduced to seven MPPs in the last election, it’ll likely be reduced to five before the end of the year, as Ottawa MPPs Marie-France Lalonde and Nathalie Des Rosiers have announced they’ll be leaving the caucus. Technically, Lalonde could lose her bid to be the federal Liberal candidate in Orleans, but that’s unlikely — if she wins it, she’ll have to resign as MPP the moment the federal election formally starts.

And once those seats are empty, the government can wait up to six months to call an election to fill them. Even if the Liberals were to reclaim them — not a guaranteed outcome — they’d still just be right back where they were at the beginning of this month: five members shy of official party status.

In short, it’s bad. Real bad. But the party will eventually need a permanent leader again. and, for some reason, none of his loved ones have talked Steven Del Duca out of wanting the job — even though he was a casualty of last year’s bloodbath. So let’s talk policy.

As part of his leadership bid, formally announced in early April, the former MPP for Vaughan last week rolled out some new proposals for transit and transportation policy (which makes sense, as he was previously the transportation minister, so it’s a subject he can speak on with some authority): as party leader and, then, he hopes, as premier, he’d push for discounted fares for anyone using transit outside of rush hour.

Del Duca isn’t the first to suggest the idea of transit discounts — in 2014, for example, Toronto mayoral candidate David Socknacki backed discounted fares for the morning rush hour — but his take on it is smart for a couple of reasons: discount off-peak fares are a relative easy way to encourage people to travel outside the busiest parts of rush hour, if they can manage it, and to reduce some of the alarming overcrowding on some parts of the transit network.

“We have 107 transit systems across the province, some very large and complex, some small and emerging … I think this is exactly the kind of space on the transit file the province should step into in partnership with municipalities and fund,” Del Duca told TVO.org on Thursday.

But if Del Duca’s time as transportation minister lets him speak confidently about these ideas, it’s also a potential weakness for him and for the Liberals under his hypothetical leadership. The 2018 election was about a lot of things, but one voter grievance was that the Liberals had too often crossed the line between policy that was good for Ontario and policy that was good for the Liberal party. (Recall then-PC leader Doug Ford asking Kathleen Wynne, “When did you lose your way?”) Del Duca was part of that problem in the late Liberal years, most notoriously in the case of the Kirby GO train station: planned for the middle of a cornfield (one in what was then Del Duca’s riding), it will make rail travel worse for passengers on the Barrie line, if it ever goes up.

Del Duca is unapologetic when challenged on his legacy.

“What you’re defining as politics or political advantage, I define as democracy,” Del Duca says. “We’ve gone through many cycles where we wanted to believe that, if we somehow notionally create independence for spending billions of dollars, that will produce better results. I’m not sure that’s right, and I’m not sure I’m convinced that’s healthy.”

This is an unsatisfying response, to say the least. For one thing, it repudiates the entire raison d’être for an agency such as Metrolinx. And it wrongly suggests that MPPs in the legislature, and, through them, cabinet ministers, don’t have the ultimate say when it comes to infrastructure choices that will literally shape the region for decades to come.

Nobody doubts that premiers and MPPs make the final call on these matters (nobody could, after the last decade). The problem is that, when the Liberals were in power, they weren’t willing to be honest about their choices: they manipulated nominally apolitical staff decisions behind the scenes. As the auditor general found last year, Del Duca could have put the ministerial decision about Kirby in writing — instead, under him, ministry staff browbeat Metrolinx into redefining the value of time so that the station would look better in the computer models and therefore appear to be the result of evidence-based, rather than an electorally based, reasoning.

Angels don’t get into politics, and maybe Del Duca’s ministerial sins won’t matter to Liberals or to voters who don’t also happen to be GTA transit obsessives. And it would be genuinely unfair to say that the Kirby GO station was the sum total of Del Duca’s tenure as minister: he oversaw most of the work to date preparing GO for more frequent two-way service across the core of the GTA, something that will pay dividends for commuters in years to come.

Notably, Del Duca says that he wants to put an end to the election-cycle see-sawing on transit planning, if he can. He says that, while it’s still too early to say what the Ford government’s Ontario Line subway will actually look like, he doesn’t want to commit to upending it given that substantial construction could be underway by the time the next election rolls around.

“Coming up with new transit maps is the easiest thing in the world for a politician to do, and I include myself in that mix,” Del Duca says. “We keep changing our minds, we keep stopping stuff … if stuff gets started or meaningfully started, I wouldn’t want to be the guy who says, ‘Nope, stop it all, we’re going in a different direction.’ To me, that would be a disaster.”

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