How many times have we seen this movie before? A politician running for office makes a promise not to do something unpalatable – raise taxes, say, or cut services or run a budget deficit. After taking office, the politician claims that, to his horror, the previous government has left things in far worse shape than he ever imagined, requiring him, with great regret, to abandon his promise.
This is the tired script that Mayor John Tory followed on Monday when he broke a campaign promise not to raise Toronto Transit Commission fares. Mr. Tory said that when he made that the pledge, he was merely an uninformed candidate on the campaign trail. So, "I'm not going be much of an expert on the transit system."
Now that he has taken office, talked to the TTC and viewed up close the devastation wrought on our transit system by that bad, bad man Rob Ford, he can see that he was wrong.
To help cover the cost of various improvements to transit service – more buses, better off-peak service, more express and nighttime bus service – he proposes to raise non-cash fares by 10 cents. It was only a foolish promise, after all. It is not as if anyone actually expected him to keep it.
To distract voters from this reversal, which comes less than two months after he took his oath of office, he offered one of the more blatant sweeteners proposed in recent Toronto politics: free rides for children. The mayor's people summoned reporters to a school library to make the happy announcement. The kids cheered. How much will your ride cost, asked TTC chair Josh Colle. "Free," they roared. Louder, he told them. "Free!"
It was clever politics, for who could ever object to letting our precious little ones ride the streetcar without a ticket? But the cost of this shiny little bauble was $7-million in forgone revenue for an underfunded transit system. That is a pretty steep price to drown out any clamour over that broken promise. The kids-for-free measure seemed to come out of nowhere.
Asking adult riders to pay 10 cents more per trip, on the other hand, is defensible policy. Everyone wants better transit service and the money has to come from somewhere. It would even make sense to institutionalize a modest annual increase, avoiding all the political wrangling.
What is harder to defend is Mr. Tory's claim that he didn't know the true state of the TTC when he made his promise not to raise fares. Mr. Tory has been around a long time. As a former radio talk-show host, a two-time mayoral candidate and a civic leader who campaigned for better transit, he is hardly a babe in the woods.
Transit was the centrepiece of his election campaign. He criticized Mr. Ford's transit record and held forth on a multimillion-dollar transit-improvement plan that the TTC put out last summer. Where, he demanded then, was all the money going to come from? This avowed non-expert considered himself expert enough to propose an elaborate $8-billion transit plan, SmartTrack.
It is unfair to hold politicians to every one of their promises. If the facts change, they have a right, even a responsibility, to change tack. But when he made his promise, Mr. Tory knew that the TTC was struggling to restore service. He must have known, as well, that finding the money to get the service back would be tough without asking commuters to pay more at the fare box.
He made the promise regardless. Now he has broken it, and that is never a small thing. Mr. Ford, making sense for once, put it simply. "John said he wasn't going to increase fares. We all heard it during the mayor's debate. And he has."
If we accept that politicians are always going to go back on what they promise, it makes evaluating their competing platforms impossible. Worse, it makes voters doubt everything they say. If Mr. Tory reverses himself on a fare increase, will he do the same on his pledge that SmartTrack will cost local property taxpayers nothing?
Sowing that kind of doubt so soon in his term was a mistake that even free streetcar rides for tots should not obscure.