One of the most fascinating political relationships you’ll ever see if you watch politics in this province is the one between the premier of Ontario and the mayor of its capital city.
Regardless of who holds these posts, there’s a built-in tension as one leader (at Queen’s Park) has almost all the power and money, while the other leader (at City Hall) spends a considerable amount of time begging for both.
You could say the glory days of this relationship came more than three decades ago, when Progressive Conservatives reigned in both places. Premier Bill Davis and Metro Toronto Chair Paul Godfrey were mostly philosophically aligned, despite the occasional dust up. Yes, Davis cancelled Godfrey’s pet project, the Spadina Expressway, in 1971. But the two, while never great personal friends, did the public’s business quite well together. Their best collaboration was probably initiating negotiations for a multi-party agreement to build what was then called the SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre. The seeds for that one were planted when the pair attended the 1982 Grey Cup together at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, sitting in a teeming rainstorm; after the hometown team lost, a crowd of fans rallied, chanting: “We want a dome!”
But in politics, peace never breaks out for very long between Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall. Many can well remember the constant battles a decade later between then-premier Mike Harris and North York’s Mel Lastman, who would go on to become the first mayor of the newly-amalgamated megacity of Toronto. Lastman made Harris’s life so miserable with his constant public attacks, I’m convinced Harris gave Toronto funding for the $1 billion Sheppard subway simply to shut Lastman up.
But perhaps the most fascinating political duo to occupy those jobs over the past few decades has been the pair who hold the offices today: Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor John Tory.
The Wynne-Tory tandem started out, against all odds (Tory left provincial politics soon after Wynne defeated him in the 2007 election) as a mutual admiration society.
But politics is a funny business, and seven years later, Wynne found herself in the premier’s office while Tory made a comeback at city hall. The pair shared a mutual respect, moderate/centrist views, and a deep desire to go light on the histrionics of their jobs and heavy on getting things done. After all, they both could rightly claim to be Toronto’s top champions: Wynne because her government won almost every single seat in the city, and Tory because as mayor he personally captured nearly 400,000 votes there.
That was then.
Three years later, both maintain they still enjoy one another’s company and can work fruitfully for the people they represent. But there is unquestionably some bloom off the rose.
It started with Wynne giving Tory every indication that Toronto’s plan to put tolls on two highways would get her government’s green light, only to do a volte-face after she got ambushed by much of her cabinet and caucus. Tory was stunned, and the next time the two leaders met, he declined to share the podium with her at their usual post-meeting news conference. He was so upset at the political capital he'd pointlessly spent to get the unpopular toll plan through city council that, as he told reporters at the time, he felt he was being “treated as a little boy going up to Queen’s Park in short pants.”
Then came last week’s Ontario budget. In numerous pre-budget consultations, Tory and his people told provincial officials he absolutely needed to see something — anything — in the budget that dealt with the city’s two top funding priorities: a $2.6 billion backlog in affordable housing maintenance, and the next stage of the city’s transit plans (including a major downtown subway line and two LRT lines).
The budget was silent on both matters. It put Tory in the awkward position of being one of the very few public figures to criticize the budget (though his language was hardly Lastman-level apocalyptic). Tory justifiably wondered how Justin Trudeau could somehow find some money for Toronto’s priorities, and Wynne could somehow find nearly half a billion dollars for an unexpected pharmacare plan but nothing for the province's capital city.
The mayor followed those post-budget criticisms with a very public joint appearance with Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, who has the job the mayor once had. Seeing the former and current PC leaders together, with some chemistry between them (Tory has known Brown since the latter was 18 years old), no doubt made some Liberals see red. In their private 45-minute meeting, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussion, Brown went through an agenda of local items, and demonstrated some knowledge of and curiosity about Toronto’s requirements — all of which pleased the mayor’s office. Though Brown pointedly made no commitments about what he’d do should he become premier after next year's election, the pair did agree to continue meeting regularly — which no doubt won’t please the premier’s office.
Outsiders probably shouldn’t come to conclusions about who’s more in the right and who’s more in the wrong on these matters: that’s always hard to judge. So much of where politicians stand, as the saying goes, depends on where they sit. Wynne is looking out for the whole province, which may not take kindly to her lavishing too much attention on Toronto, whereas Tory’s job is to worry about his constituents' needs, regardless of what the province intends to do for Windsor, Wawa, and Wingham.
But some facts are indisputable. The premier’s personal popularity clocks in at 11 per cent; the mayor’s is above 50 per cent. Presumably, if he chose to spend some of that popularity praising the premier, it couldn’t do her any harm. In fact, Tory has offered to hold public events and campaign with Liberal candidates all over the city, if only the Liberals showed him some love in their budget. They didn’t, and so instead, the mayor is now publicly calling on the Liberal Party’s Toronto caucus members to start advocating more effectively for their home turf, or risk being ridiculed by City Hall. Etobicoke North MPP Shafiq Qaadri has already found himself in those crosshairs, something Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca called “over the line” — the same Steven Del Duca who crashed the hallway outside the mayor’s office after the Tory-Brown press conference to inform the media that no government in Ontario history has spent more on Toronto’s transit priorities than this Liberal government.
Yes, Wynne still has one more budget to present before the election, so there still could be some sugar for the capital city. But if there isn’t, you can rest assured that special relationship the premier and the mayor once had will be a long-forgotten memory. And I’m not sure how wise it would be to make an enemy of a popular mayor of Toronto, as you ask the people of his city to return many of your MPPs to the legislature.
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