It’s one of the great truisms of politics: where you stand depends on where you sit.
At the moment, John Tory sits in the mayor’s chair at Toronto City Hall. And Patrick Brown sits in the Opposition leader’s chair at Queen’s Park — the same chair Tory, in fact, sat in a decade ago.
Though both have been leaders of the province's Progressive Conservative party, and leaders of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the similarities between Tory and Brown probably end there.
In recent days, Tory has jettisoned the position he once held that road tolls would be an inappropriate, unwelcome fee to foist upon unsuspecting drivers in Ontario’s capital city. A decade later, with more public transit about to come online and new revenues needed to maintain existing infrastructure, Tory now favours putting tolls on the two highways that the city is responsible for maintaining: the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway.
But Tory and Toronto need the provincial government to sign off on this revenue-raising scheme, and that has given Brown the opening he needs to weigh in. The Opposition leader has decided that Tory’s tolls are a good issue with which to whack Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, and so he has announced that if he becomes premier after the June 2018 election, he’ll reverse the Liberals’ decision to allow Toronto the right to impose those tolls, should the current government green light them (which everyone expects will happen soon).
The political calculation for Brown probably goes something like this: he can get over the awkwardness of one PC party leader fighting a former one, because the bigger story here will be the public’s revulsion at paying more to drive on those highways.
Eighteen months from now, who knows what the public’s view of tolling will be. But today, according to a Forum Research poll, Tory’s personal approval rating is a sky-high 62 per cent, a number arrived at even after he announced his support for tolls. And a Mainstreet Research survey commissioned by the advocacy group Transit Alliance found a surprisingly high acceptance of road tolls, even among people in the inner suburbs such as Etobicoke and Scarborough — people who will surely pay those tolls more than folks in the old city of Toronto, where acceptance was understandably the highest given the city's reliance on public transit.
However, to me, the intriguing political drama here is not the public debate about tolls but the Tory vs. Brown brouhaha. It seems pretty clear that the easy populist play here is to oppose the tolls come hell or high water. After all, Opposition leaders are supposed to oppose. (The other Opposition party, the NDP, has also come out against the tolls.)
But this scenario seems eerily reminiscent of another intra-PC dust up. Nearly a decade ago, the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty were trying to implement perhaps the most far-reaching sales tax reform in Ontario history — the harmonization of the federal goods and services tax with the provincial retail sales tax. Then, as now, PC Opposition leader Tim Hudak opposed the measure, even though a former party leader (again John Tory, then a radio talk show host) favored the reform. It was even more awkward in that case because the federal finance minister, Conservative Jim Flaherty (one of Tim Hudak’s political heroes), was collaborating with the McGuinty Liberals to make that tax harmonization happen.
Hudak found himself opposing the government (presumably, that’s part of his job), but in a politically untenable position because of that conflict with the federal party. Hudak’s opposition just never rang authentic. The lesson to me seems to be, yes, Opposition leaders are supposed to oppose, but not necessarily everything, and particularly not when you appear to be contradicting yourself in the process.
In dealing with the current road toll dispute, the Liberals are quoting Brown against himself, bringing back old statements in which he essentially says the province ought not to stick its nose into municipal affairs. For example, the Liberals say this July, Brown told the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the province to come in and say ‘we know best’, when frankly it should be the local issues that have the best sense of where the gridlock exists.”
Brown also said the following, when promising that a PC government would fund Hamilton’s desire for a new light rail line: “I respect the autonomy of municipalities. If the mayor and council have stated very clearly that’s where they want the provincial partnership to be, that’s where it will be.”
And yet, by saying he would nix the tolls even if Toronto city council approved it, Brown is now promising to do exactly what he said he wouldn’t do: overrule a local council’s decision on transportation planning.
Tory’s communications director Amanda Galbraith saw it as a nakedly obvious political play and hammered Brown with this: “If Patrick Brown is trying to score cheap political points in the 905, maybe he should have championed a plan to fix people's commutes into Toronto. Now he needs to explain to Toronto residents why he's happy to let them live in a city that can't afford to fight traffic or build transit.”
As a play for 905 votes, maybe this will work for Brown. It seems likely that most of the people who are going to pay this toll will be residents of the 905 ridings, where Brown is desperate to make a breakthrough. On the other hand, perhaps we’ll see a repeat of the confused politics surrounding the opposition to the HST, and an opposition that falls apart because few believe the opposition is truly opposed.
In the meantime, things are probably going to be a lot more uncomfortable between Tory and Brown — which probably suits the Ontario Liberals just fine, as they continue to try to frame Brown as just another opportunistic, flip-flopping politician.
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