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Tory argues he can cover the city’s one-third share of his $8-billion SmartTrack surface subway project without charging local property taxpayers an extra dime. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)
Tory argues he can cover the city’s one-third share of his $8-billion SmartTrack surface subway project without charging local property taxpayers an extra dime. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

John Tory goes wobbly on sensitive issue of transit taxes Add to ...

John Tory had a confession to make.

It was Jan. 21, 2013, and he was addressing a citizens group gathered at a Toronto pub. The topic was public transit. Mr. Tory, the former Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader, was then chair of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, which was pressing governments to invest in better transit.

“The notion that there’s free transit is crazy,” he said, in a talk that lives on through YouTube. Cash-strapped governments could not just dip into some magic pot of money to pay for it. Political leaders had to find the courage to level with the public and admit they needed new sources of revenue, whether sales taxes or income taxes or whatever the chosen revenue tool might be, to cover the enormous cost of building more subways and other forms of mass transit.

But that, he said, was a hard thing to do. Even he had failed in the past to do it. When he was running for mayor against David Miller in 2003, he recalled, Mr. Miller had mused about putting tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway if higher levels of governments did not come up with more money for transit. Mr. Tory jumped all over him, calling it highway robbery and mocking him by sending out protesters dressed as robbers.

He did it in the heat of an election, he said, and “well, you know, that’s how politicians act.” But in leaping to score a political point, he had “performed a disservice” to the city. Mr. Miller backed off on tolls, which became a taboo subject. Worse, the incident helped shut down further discussion about using new taxes, tolls or levies to fund transit. His pub audience applauded his candour.

Flash forward to the present day. Mr. Tory is running for mayor again. Polls show he is the front-runner. If the John Tory who made that confession was taking his own advice, he would be straight with voters and say, as he encouraged other politicians to say in 2013, that there are ways to find more money for transit but “none of them are painless for people.”

Instead, he argues he can cover the city’s one-third share of his $8-billion SmartTrack surface subway project without charging local property taxpayers an extra dime. All the money will come from something called tax-increment financing, a mechanism, untried in Canada on such a scale, which counts on the naturally rising tax revenue that should come when developers build near transit lines.

When his rival Olivia Chow acknowledged that the city would have to use property taxes to help fund another huge project, the downtown relief subway line, he attacked her as hard as he had once attacked David Miller. The “NDP candidate,” he charged in outraged tones, would saddle taxpayers with “another tax hike” amounting to $3-billion.

Understand that Ms. Chow was not even proposing one of the new revenue tools that Mr. Tory once urged politicians to have the courage to consider. She was talking about the property tax, the city of Toronto’s main, existing source of revenue. He attacked her anyway.

Mr. Tory is hardly the only politician to go wobbly on the sensitive topic of transit taxes. Kathleen Wynne seemed ready to go out on a limb and support them after she become premier but backed off when she faced selling new taxes to voters in an election. Most city politicians have retreated, too.

The difference is that he condemned others for going wobbly. In that pub talk, he said that politicians were simply “afraid to talk about the truth about what’s needed.” Voters, he said, had to tell their leaders that “you either have the courage to be candid about this and be honest about this and have the discussion and make some decisions on it or we’ll find some people who can.”

As a man who entered politics, then exited to become a radio talk show host and is now running for office again, he is on the record behaving way one way on the subject, regretting it publicly, then going back to the very behaviour he regretted.

The 2003 John Tory attacked a rival mayoral candidate for daring to muse about using tolls. The 2013 John Tory said that “that was a mistake.” The 2014 John Tory attacks a fellow mayoral candidate for talking about using property taxes. What, you have to wonder, will the 2015 or 2016 John Tory say?

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