CanadaEdward Keenan: In the war against Doug Ford, public opinion is the strongest weapon John Tory has
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And so, we’ve reached the point in our city and province’s long-running real-life political drama — call it Game of Throne Speeches — in which the warring factions of Toronto’s six kingdoms realize they desperately need to band together to fight the Great War.
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Premier Night King has made it increasingly obvious he is intent on essentially reducing the city’s government to rubble — halving its membership and rewriting its governance, robbing it of authority, slashing resources deeply on multiple fronts and in multiple ways that get right to the quality of life of residents. As the Star’s editorial board, the unrelenting attacks on Toronto can only be seen as war. The Long Night has arrived. The threat is existential.
If you doubt the metaphor is apt, consider how broad and deep Premier Doug Ford’s interference, meddling, and undercutting of the city over the past year has been: the drastic changes to the size and workings of council in the middle of an election campaign, the rapid rewriting of plans for Ontario Place and the waterfront, the overhaul of the city’s transit plan and determination to take over the subway network, the revision of development rules to take authority out of municipal hands, the withdrawal of hundreds of millions in gas tax funding, and the cutting of possibly hundreds of millions more from public health and child care. In no case does it appear the city and its leaders are given even a courtesy heads up about changes that throw their work into chaos.
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Premier Doug Ford’s cuts and changes to child-care funding are expected to cost the City of Toronto $84.8 million this year alone and jeopardize 6,166 subsidized daycare spaces for low-income parents, according to city staff calculations. City manager Chris Murray emailed Mayor John Tory and Toronto’s 25 councillors the grim bombshell, the results of city staff number-crunching, late Thursday afternoon. The Star obtained a copy of the email outlining the latest in a series of Progressive Conservative provincial budget cuts that could cost the City of Toronto, over the next decade, billions of dollars in funding for transit, public health and more.
A similar approach is weakening other cities around the province, though the cuts and encroachments do single out Toronto for harsher treatment.
So Mayor John Tory, alongside both his allies and erstwhile rivals on city council,.
“You’ll see me standing up for our city when the provincial government risks stalling out the economic engine of Ontario just to save less than one-tenth of one half of one percentage point of the provincial budget,” Tory said in a speech to a business lunch in Scarborough on Monday.
“I will not let this city be pushed backwards,” he said.
The problem for Tory and his council, and for the dozens of other mayors from around the province and the leaders of school boards and others who have also recognized the threat and joined the fight, is that it’s not clear what weapons they have in their arsenal. Unlike a fictional magical kingdom you could think of, municipalities in Ontario have no fire-breathing dragons, or dragonglass, or Valyrian steel. The provincial Army of the Deadbeats has every bit of legal authority, and could simply abolish city governments entirely if it chose.
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And yet what other option is left but to try to fight?
Mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat’s brief talk about secession from the province from last summer in favour of provincehood, or home rule, or a city charter — derided at the time (althoughby ) — looks pretty on the nose in retrospect. The problem, of course, being that it is never going to happen, or certainly not soon enough to help. Doug Ford’s provincial government would never agree to it, the other provinces and federal government are not going to amend the constitution on our behalf.
Beyond that, it’s hard to begin to know where Toronto can fight the province. The courts are unlikely to help. The city has little it can threaten the province with that can’t be immediately overruled by those they are trying to fight.
Mayor Tory and his allies are left, it seems, with public opinion. “Door to door, ward by ward,” as Tory put it, heart by heart, mind by mind. If they can convince the public of Toronto, and the 905, and possibly the rest of the province, that these attacks are as damaging and poorly conceived as they are, then perhaps there’s a chance.
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Mayor John Tory sent letters to Toronto's 11 Progressive Conservative MPPs outlining how the province's cuts to child-care funding could hurt families in their ridings. The letters, which were sent Friday, specify the number of subsidized child-care spaces at risk of being curtailed or cancelled and the number of children on the wait list for a city-funded subsidy in each PC-held riding in the city. Tory calls the cuts unilateral and retroactive and notes that they were made without any consultation with Toronto officials.
Public opinion is the dragon fire of any government, able to melt the spines of even the toughest-talking, dead-eyed backbench MPP. If the public sees the threat and recognizes it, then Ford’s own party will have no choice but to retreat or face certain self-destruction come next election.
There’s one more partial defence available to the city’s leaders — and those of other cities — if the province fails to change course. They can raise property taxes significantly to cover all the budget gaps the province has opened up, and blame Ford. This has the possibility of backfiring politically, of course. But it is likely a better option than seeing things like infectious disease control and child care subsidies eliminated.
Ford has cut taxes and plans to spend a lot on things like making beer more widely available. Rather than make any actual tough budget decisions, Ford has just pushed billions of dollars onto municipal balance sheets and told them to figure it out. Their choice is largely to abandon responsibility for necessary programs just as the province has, or to step up and pay for things that should be provincial responsibilities.
It’s not an attractive set of options. But they may be the only ones left open.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter:
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