Voters who live in Toronto have endured two particularly awful election campaigns in the past year.
The federal vote called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for last September was a pointless affair in which the leaders of the three major parties alternated between trashing one another and hurling promises at every interest group and voting bloc in sight. It cost $600-million and ended with the three holding almost the same number of seats as they had before it all started.
The Ontario vote that Premier Doug Ford called for June 2 pitted him against an NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, who had stayed in the job for too long and a Liberal, Steven Del Duca, who never should have been in the job in the first place. This time, too, the parties tried to tempt voters with expensive, glittery promises and mislead them with fact-warping attacks on their rivals. The turnout was the lowest ever for an Ontario election.
The coming municipal election is awful in a different way. While the others were full of empty sound and insincere fury, this one is simply a dud. It is easily the dullest contest since the creation of the amalgamated city of Toronto a quarter-century ago, and that includes Mel Lastman versus Tooker Gomberg in 2000 and David Miller versus Jane Pitfield in 2006.
The main contestants in the mayoral race, if you can call it that, are John Tory, who has already served two terms and should have stopped there, and Gil Penalosa, a consultant and urbanist who doesn’t have a hope. It is the story of the tortoise and the tortoise.
Mr. Penalosa likes bike lanes and bus lanes and nice parks and affordable housing and every other good and worthy thing. One of his campaign promises is to ensure that no Torontonian will have to look out the window without seeing at least three trees. Mr. Tory vows “to keep taxes low and get big things done,” a neat trick if you can manage it. Seeking to be all things to all people, he has somehow managed to make moderation a vice.
Most elections at least include a few head-to-head clashes between rivals. No such luck in this campaign.
Toronto used to have a long election season with many candidate forums and debates spread over many months. It was considered too much of a good thing so now the campaign season is far shorter and there are hardly any debates at all. Mr. Tory and Mr. Penalosa will square off just once, at the board of trade Oct. 17, three days after advanced polls close.
The result has been a kind of phony war, a campaign with no defining issues, no newsworthy clashes and no galvanizing personalities. With Mr. Tory all but certain to sail placidly to a third term, the only real question is whether Toronto will set its own new record for low turnout.
That’s a shame, because Toronto has a lot to talk about. The city is just coming out of a tough two years. The pandemic drained the city’s financial resources. City hall is struggling to find the money to pay for the constant maintenance and upgrades that a big city needs.
With residents streaming back to work, the roads are crowded again and the subways, streetcars and buses filling up. It will take billions just to keep the city’s transportation networks working, not to mention fund all the expansion projects that are planned and under way.
With Ottawa opening up the gates to immigrants, many of them headed to Greater Toronto, the city will have to build more housing, more parks, more roads and bridges. It is behind on all of this. Even keeping what it has in good repair is proving a challenge. The city is already bubbling with annoyance about busted trash bins, out-of-order washrooms, TTC detours and a host of other signs of a city under stress.
None of these challenges are insuperable. Most of them are the problems of success, the kind every dynamic, growing city experiences. But for Toronto to be the super-city it is becoming will take bold leadership and sharp debate. In this election campaign, Toronto is getting neither.