One of the most frequent comments I hear from citizens about the politicians that represent us goes something like this: “They’re a bunch of weak-kneed, spineless goofballs who will do and say anything to get elected — except make tough decisions.”
In some respects, it’s understandable why politicians are loath to make those tough decisions: Choosing generally means making someone happy, and correspondingly making enemies elsewhere. And it's a political truism that the latter group can matter more. Happy constituents aren't necessarily happy enough to be motivated to vote, while those who are mad need little mobilizing to come out and support your opponents. Which politicians, with re-election constantly on their minds, want to risk inflaming much of society?
So, yes, examples of political courage are often few and far between, which makes this week’s news out of Toronto City Hall so much more noteworthy.
Mayor John Tory has taken a position that is truly unusual in politics, both in terms of its specifics and how it goes against type. If you’ve been following Tory’s mayoralty, you’ll know that his approval ratings are unusually high. In fact, last week, the Toronto Star’s Royson James made one of those predictions that can come back to embarrass any columnist, but it seemed such a safe one at the time. The next municipal election is still two years away, but James wrote Tory will easily win re-election, in part because he has skillfully marginalized his opponents by occupying such a vast swath of the political middle.
His critics have alleged that Tory’s popularity stems from the fact that he hasn’t made any tough decisions, which would require him to spend political capital — to risk that voter wrath.
But this week, Tory clearly decided to make a withdrawal from that bank. Reversing his previously held views, he now says motorists should have to pay road tolls to use two of the city’s major expressways — the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway — in order to raise $200 million annually, which would be put toward infrastructure improvements.
Despite knowing that taking this position could give an opening to a grievance candidate from the tax-averse inner suburbs, Tory decided to risk his mayoralty on this plan.
Parenthetically, I recorded an interview with 2014 mayoral candidate Doug Ford earlier today, for broadcast on Monday. He said he was 95 per cent certain he was going to run in the next Ontario election, but with Tory’s tolls announcement, he was now re-evaluating that and was now much more inclined to have a rematch with Tory in 2018.
Whether you like or detest the idea of dropping a toonie every time you drive on those highways, you do have to acknowledge that Tory has demonstrated bold leadership. Let’s recall only a few years ago, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government tasked Anne Golden, former president of the Conference Board of Canada, to look into “revenue tools” to raise money to pay for infrastructure. One of Golden’s recommendations was to consider road tolls around Toronto. The Liberals, after warning people some of those revenue tools would definitely go into effect, promptly put the study on a shelf, where it just gathered dust. That was considered the politically safer play.
Needless to say, making bold decisions doesn’t always work, and Tory knows that better than anyone practising politics in Ontario today. In 2007, when he was Ontario PC party leader, he tried to advance what he considered a master stroke to repair the historical anomaly in our education system by proposing public funding for all religious school systems, not just the Catholic school board. Much of the public may have agreed with Tory about the problem — that it was unfair for one religion's school system to receive public funding but not others — but it also overwhelmingly rejected his solution. The Liberals’ Dalton McGuinty won re-election.
But as the mayor has said, he’s lost elections before and would be prepared to lose again, as long as he ran on something he genuinely believed in and conducted himself with integrity.
“Besides,” he often jokes, “my wife Barb would be so much happier if I were out of politics!”
The 2018 Toronto mayor’s race just got a lot more interesting. And if Tory does win re-election in 2018, it may give other politicians the idea that the public actually will reward bold decision-makers rather than punish them.
Watch The Agenda on Monday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. for an interview with Toronto Mayor John Tory about road tolls followed by a panel discussion on their potential. Then, Steve Paikin talks with Doug Ford about his book, Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision — The True Story of the People's Mayor, and his own political future.
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