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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in the Ontario Legislature. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in the Ontario Legislature. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Adam Radwanski

McGuinty graciously offers Ford a whole lot of rope Add to ...

So long as it doesn't affect their own government's bottom line, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals will give Rob Ford what he wants.

Right now, that means serving up a whole lot of rope.

The Toronto mayor is being applauded by many voters for fulfilling campaign promises to replace planned surface lines with subways and to ban strikes by the Toronto Transit Commission - both of which require big provincial assists. But whether he's being cheered so loudly in a few years, when the bills come in, is a different matter. And the province knows it.

Legislation to make the TTC an essential service, introduced Tuesday by Labour Minister Charles Sousa in deference to a motion passed by city council, has a certain appeal to anyone who remembers the unpleasantness when transit workers suddenly walked off the job in 2008. If passed in time, the bill will eliminate the risk of the same thing happening when the TTC's current contract expires this spring.

But while that annoys union leaders, the fact that contract talks will almost automatically be sent to arbitration is good news for their members. And that's not just because, as has been widely documented, the process usually awards generous wage settlements.

Beyond adjusting pay, arbitrators don't tend to significantly alter the status quo. So pensions and other benefits will remain intact, and there will be no major changes to pay structures aimed at improving efficiency (or customer service). In other words, TTC labour costs are guaranteed to continue going up, adding to the squeeze Mr. Ford will face as he attempts to cut revenue without significantly affecting services.

The fallout from Mr. Ford's proposed extension to the Sheppard subway line is more difficult to predict. But suffice it to say that, outside the Mayor's office, there is a great deal of skepticism as to whether his plan to rely almost entirely on private funding will pan out.

Still, Mr. McGuinty will probably sign off on it. And really, why wouldn't he?

Most of the $8.15-billion in provincial funding previously committed (when David Miller was mayor) to above-ground light-rail transit lines will go toward a below-ground LRT along Eglinton Avenue - a compromise the Liberals can live with. Meanwhile, Mr. Ford will get the province's blessing to experiment with the Sheppard scheme - and to wear the mess if the private funding plan falls through.

From the provincial perspective, it's hard to argue with too much of this. Mr. McGuinty's responsibility is to ensure that other parts of the province don't wind up paying for Toronto's mistakes. Considering that Mr. Ford is offering to take on all the risk, and that he's doing exactly what he told voters he would do, it's really not the Premier's responsibility to babysit.

Of course, there's always the danger that Mr. Ford will eventually come back to Queen's Park, cap in hand. Provincial officials say the Mayor's office has provided assurances that won't happen in response to wage increases. But if the Sheppard plan blows up spectacularly, and the city winds up on the hook for billions of dollars, the province could well get dragged in.

But for now, nobody is thinking that far ahead. Rob Ford is getting what he wants. So too, for now, are Torontonians. In an election year of his own, why would Mr. McGuinty want to disillusion them?



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