Toronto Mayor John Tory broke one of his most fundamental election promises this week when he proposed to bring in a major increase in taxes, something he has always said he would never do.
No one seemed to mind much. There was no hint of an uprising among his colleagues on city council, most of whom seemed quite willing to go meekly along. Nor was there any outcry in the media. In fact, most observers gave him a pat on the back for having the sense to change his tune. After all, they reasoned, Toronto needs to raise money for improvements to transit, housing and other basic needs. Mr. Tory’s move to increase and extend a special “city-building levy” on property taxpayers would help do the trick.
It is tempting to see things that way. Toronto is a growing city with growing demands on its public services. Meeting them will take billions for new subways, streetcars, roads, bridges and sewer pipes. Why not ask the taxpayer to give a little more?
There is a pretty simple answer to that: The city’s elected leader said he wouldn’t. Over and over, he has pledged solemnly and unequivocally that, as long as he was mayor, property-tax increases would stay at or below the rate of inflation. This wasn’t just some passing remark or throwaway line. He made it a core of his pitch to voters when he first ran for mayor in 2014. It was a main plank of his platform again when he ran for re-election in 2018. He has been repeating it like a mantra for five straight years.
Google it if you like. There he is in August, 2018, standing at a lectern marked with the slogan “Lower Taxes” and swearing that tax hikes would stay within inflation if he were re-elected that fall. When he was asked whether he wouldn’t need to raise taxes to pay for better transit, he replied: that’s “just not on.”
Taking aim at his rival Jennifer Keesmaat, he demanded: Do voters “want a mayor who will continue to keep property taxes low and has shown the ability to do that while still making investments in key city services, improving them and enhancing them? Or do they want their property taxes to soar?”
As recently as last winter, when a report said the city could afford to raise taxes at a greater rate, his spokesman said that “Mayor Tory campaigned on keeping property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation – voters across Toronto in every ward voted overwhelmingly in favour of that promise and gave the Mayor a mandate to continue his responsible approach to the city’s finances.”
Yes they did. He ran on low tax increases. Voters elected him on low tax increases. He has said again and again that because they elected him on low tax increases, he had no choice but to deliver low tax increases.
What possible excuse does he have for reversing himself? Have senior governments suddenly pulled the carpet out from under Toronto? No. Both the previous provincial government under Kathleen Wynne and the current federal government under Justin Trudeau have been quite generous with Toronto, putting up billions for transit and other needs. Even the current provincial government under Doug Ford has rowed back on some of the cuts that would have fallen on Toronto, while offering more billions for new subways.
Has Toronto suddenly discovered it needs heaps more money? No again. Officials have been warning Mr. Tory for years that the city lacked the resources for all its plans. He has always said it would be unfair to make the hard-pressed Toronto taxpayer contribute much more. When his rivals on the left suggested he was wrong, he heaped scorn on them, warning voters to stick with him if they wanted to guard their wallets.
Let’s be generous with the Mayor, then, and say he has had a simple change of heart. He sincerely believes that Toronto taxpayers need to step up if the city is to deal with its explosive growth without falling apart. If so, there is a simple way forward. He can run again in 2022 and put his levy before voters in the election campaign.
That is how this is supposed to work. Analyze the problem, come up with a plan, ask the people for a green light, put it into action. The way Mr. Tory has chosen – breaking an important promise without going to voters to approve his change of course – only feeds the cynicism about politicians that is undermining democracies around the world.