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Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This Monday's dramatic transit debate at city council looked positively dignified next to the spectacle that unfolded the next day in the provincial legislature at Queen's Park. In a partisan exchange that should give second thoughts to anyone who wants to bring party politics to the civic arena, MPPs traded jibes, struck poses and did their best to blame the other side for all transit sins.

The issue was who should decide Toronto's transit future. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said that instead of waiting for Toronto to make up its mind over what kind of transit it wants, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty should simply ignore the views of the city government and push ahead with the only worthwhile form of transit: subways. The government counters that it has no choice but to respect Toronto's views.

It is hard to know which leader is on weaker moral ground. The "subways or bust" stand is a bit rich coming from Mr. Hudak. It was a Conservative government under premier Mike Harris that cancelled the Eglinton subway project in 1995 and filled in the tunnel – an enduring symbol of the city's transit failures. As former mayor David Miller was quick to point out, it was also the Harris Conservatives that cut operating subsidies to the Toronto Transit Commission. The TTC has been behind the eight ball ever since.

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If Mr. Hudak is now pushing subways, the motives look nakedly political. His party has been shut out of Toronto for years. It suits his purpose to accuse the Liberals of denying suburban voters their God-given right to have subways just like downtowners. This is the political strategy – stoking suburban anger – being pushed by Doug Ford, brother of the mayor. Mr. Hudak seems fully on board.

Mr. Hudak risks looking two-faced, as well, when he tells the Premier to override local decision-makers. After all, he argues that the province should leave it up to local governments whether to allow wind farms. "I've always believed in local decision-making," he says on that issue. How is it different for rail lines?

As for the Liberals, don't forget that their decision to hold back $4-billion in funding for the Transit City light-rail network pulled the first thread in the unravelling of the project. And it was Mr. McGuinty who signed a deal with Mayor Rob Ford last year to kill Transit City altogether and to build an all-underground line on Eglinton in its place. Only a belated revolt on city council against Mr. Ford has laid the ground for returning to a version of Transit City.

Former transportation minister Kathleen Wynne, now Minister of Municipal Affairs, tried to argue in the legislature on Tuesday that Queen's Park has always insisted that the transit deal with Mr. Ford would have to go to city council for a decision eventually.

True, but the Liberal government proceeded as if it was a done deal. Its tame transit agency, Metrolinx, went along with the new plan for an all-underground Eglinton line. Mr. McGuinty argued at that time that he could not ignore the will of the city – by which he meant the mayor. Facing an election and trailing in the polls, he clearly did not want a fight with the newly elected Mr. Ford.

Now that city council is leaning toward light rail, Mr. McGuinty can hardly turn around and say the province is going ahead and building subways, regardless of the city's opinion. For one thing, it is bad policy to pour all of the $8.4-billion of provincial funding into a single underground line when the same amount could build so much more transit with a blended system of partly underground, partly above-ground light rail.

For another, simply to tell Toronto the way things are going to be would set back the city's attempt to stand on its own. As the sixth largest government in Canada, Toronto has been trying to grow up and take responsibility for its own affairs. Queen's Park has encouraged it in that ambition, handing it wider powers of taxation and self-government. To make a unilateral provincial decision on a huge project that will shape Toronto's transit future would put the city right back in the position of being a ward of the province.

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Though neither Mr. Hudak nor Mr. McGuinty is in a position to boast about how they have handled the transit issue, the Premier is in the right on this one.

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