Jockeying for electoral advantage is the main reason for the much-discussed mess at Thursday's city council meeting on transit taxes. Much of that jockeying revolves around Scarborough.
With a municipal election looming in a year and a half and a provincial election probably earlier, everyone is making a pitch for the suburban belt of more than 600,000 people on Toronto's eastern flank. "I think people are imagining that Scarborough is going to be to Toronto what Quebec is to Canada," says Parkdale-High Park Councillor Gord Perks. "It is the large, vote-rich area that can vote as a bloc."
If Mayor Rob Ford can win in Scarborough to the east and his home turf of Etobicoke to the west, he will be hard to beat in 2014. He knows it.
Since city council voted down his poorly thought-out plan to extend the Sheppard subway to Scarborough, he has been warning his rivals that he will blame them for robbing the area of the mass-transit it needs. Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, told CP24 television this week that the mayor still plans to build underground transit for all those people "freezing their butts off outside" waiting for buses in Scarborough.
Now, with the provincial government talking about bringing in new "revenue tools" to pay for better transit, the Fords have a second stick to shake at their rivals. The mayor has said he would circulate literature with the names and photographs of every city councillor who voted in favour of taxes. That threat appeared to work on some councillors. Council declined to give a clear endorsement to a single transit tax.
All this makes elected officials in Scarborough exceedingly nervous. Scarborough Southwest Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who is married to local MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti, says incumbents could be in trouble if Scarborough voters find themselves paying hundreds of dollars in new transit taxes but see much of the funding going to underground transit elsewhere. "If you go to the door and say, 'We're going to ask you for $850 and we're going to shove it all downtown,' what do you think they are going to do?" she says.
To take the stick out of the Fords' hands, she and a fellow Scarborough councillor, Glenn De Baeremaeker, persuaded councillors to back a plan to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough. Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz, a potential rival for Mr. Ford in 2014, joined in supporting the plan. It has been shot down by Queen's Park, but the point had been made.
Scarborough, subways and the Fords factor into provincial politics, too. Ms. Berardinetti said that her husband has met with fellow Liberal MPPs in the area and that all are pressing for subways to Scarborough. Unless the Liberal government comes through, she says, Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is sure to go after those ridings with a claim, echoing the Fords, that the good people of Scarborough need subways. Without the swing Scarborough ridings, Ms. Berardinetti says, "the Liberals are going to lose anyway and you are not going to have any revenue tools" for transit.
Scarborough, in other words, is very much in play at both provincial and municipal levels. The fight over transit could be a key to winning it. Ms Berardinetti says she went door to door in her ward a few weeks ago and found voters talking a lot about the issue. "It's huge," she says.
The Fords' line that Scarborough is being ripped off is misleading, to say the least. Under the provincial government's Big Move mass-transit plan, Scarborough is to get not one but three light-rail lines: one along Sheppard, one along Eglinton, and a replacement of the Scarborough RT. But that hasn't stopped the mayor's frightened opponents from trying to defuse his threats any way they can.