Progressive Toronto is feeling traumatized by Doug Ford’s election victory and it’s easy to see why. Just look at the electoral map. Toronto is NDP orange, with a splash or two of Liberal red. Around it lies a sea of Tory blue.
“Together, we’re going to have to fight to protect what matters most to us in Toronto,” city councillor Josh Matlow said on Twitter. In the same vein, councillor Joe Cressy tweeted: “Make no mistake, Doug Ford’s election is a disaster for Toronto.” Many NDP and Liberal figures feel the same.
If so, it is a disaster at least partly of their own making. For years, they have been urging Queen’s Park to shell out more money – more for public housing, more for transit, more for just about everything. They encouraged the provincial government to spend as if there were no tomorrow – and, under Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, it did. Ontario piled up a $300-billion debt, placing a millstone around the neck of the next generation.
Voters grew worried about the government’s improvidence and tossed Ms. Wynne out. In comes Mr. Ford, promising to respect taxpayers and put the provincial finances in order. Should this really come as any surprise? After the free-spending government of the NDP’s Bob Rae, voters opted for Progressive Conservative Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution. After seven years of the left-leaning David Miller at city hall, capped by an unpopular strike, voters chose that self-professed champion of the taxpayer, Rob Ford. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. After a hard swing to the left, the province was bound to swing right again.
That it should result in quite this sort of swing is a shame. The rise of the bombastic and prickly Doug Ford to the highest political office in Ontario is concerning to anyone who has watched him. His pandering populism – here comes one-buck beer, folks – is out of step with the practical and moderate politics that most people want but that, sadly, was not on offer in this election of dismal options.
But is he a disaster for Toronto? Let’s see. When the provincial government retrenches, as it must after so many years of profligacy, municipal governments are bound to feel it. A fifth of Toronto’s operating budget comes from Queen’s Park. It relies heavily on the province for help building subways and other big projects, too.
It is a fantasy to think that putting the province back in the black will be pain-free. Mr. Ford says he won’t have to lay anyone off – not a single person. He will keep spending on subways, hospitals and other good things. Oh, and he will give everyone a nice break on hydro, gas and taxes. The numbers don’t add up. If he is serious about balancing the books and tackling the debt, Mr. Ford will have to cut somewhere. In one way or another, the axe will fall on Toronto.
That means more conflict between city hall and Queen’s Park. If you thought the squabbles between Ms. Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory were lively, just wait till Mr. Ford and Mr. Tory go at it. Although Mr. Ford insists he is keen on transit, especially subways, he may cut back on big-ticket projects once he gets a look at how bad the finances really are. He may claw back some housing money, too.
But Toronto has been through periods of austerity before. It survived somehow. It is a thriving city with substantial revenue of its own and the power to raise more by bringing in new taxes if it wants. Along with the pain, some good could come from the change of government. Bay Street will be pleased with Mr. Ford’s plans to cut corporate taxes, and Toronto’s success depends on the health of its business sector as much as it does on the largesse of the provincial government.
If a Ford government drops its happy talk and makes a sincere attempt to put the provincial finances back on a sound footing, that is a plus for Toronto, too. A spendthrift province is no good for the city in the long term. If city hall were looking to the future, it would be pushing Queen’s Park to deal with the debt instead of knocking on its doors every second day to ask for more money.
No, worried downtowners shouldn’t rush to the barricades just yet. As disheartening as Doug Ford’s victory may be, it isn’t the end of Toronto as we know it.