On the one hand, Doug Ford’s Ontario government has left the province’s transit requirements sitting unfunded while it claims to have a bigger, better transit plan for which it has offered only laughably vague details.
On the other hand, Justin Trudeau’s federal government was pushing the bounds of cynicism when it started telling people that is the only reason that Bombardier is laying off 550 workers at its Thunder Bay rail-car plant.
When that depressing news hit the Northern Ontario town, the federal and provincial governments were quick to spring into action to deal with what mattered most: pinning the blame on someone else.
So it’s worth deconstructing who, in this childish squabble, is to blame for what.
The feds came out of the gates Monday morning, as Patty Hajdu, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour – and also the MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North – charged that Ontario’s government had let critical investments in public transit lapse. She also complained that Mr. Ford himself had promised a new contract for the Bombardier government only months ago. “Where is he now?” she said.
There was a quick response: Ontario’s Economic Development Minister, Vic Fedeli, and then Mr. Ford said Ontario has a $28.5-billion transit expansion plan, and the federal government has to pay its share, too, or it risks Bombardier jobs. “Where is their money?” Mr. Ford said. Mr. Ford also said Ontario does have a contract for the plant – a $130-million order for 36 rail cars.
One problem is that Mr. Ford has been talking about that rail-car order as if it is signed, sealed and delivered. But it’s a commercial contract being negotiated by Metrolinx, the provincial Crown corporation for transit in the Golden Horseshoe region of Southern Ontario, and it’s not a done deal yet. Maybe it will come. But a 36-car order will provide the plant work for months, not years.
The bigger federal-provincial spitting match is about who has slowed down new transit projects. And if these layoffs were really all about that, the feds would be right: It was the Ontario government, and Mr. Ford’s back-of-envelope vision for a transit plan that’s all his own, that has put a pause on funding transit projects in the Greater Toronto Area.
Big transit projects usually get going with money from federal infrastructure programs: Municipalities submit projects, provinces set priorities, and all three levels of government share the cost.
But after Mr. Ford’s government took office, it took roughly a year before it started opening the door to proposals. And it has never really opened the process for Greater Toronto Area transit proposals. Instead, Ontario announced an outline for its own $28.5-billion transit plan, and asked Ottawa for $11.5-billion.
Never mind that that’s more than the entire transit infrastructure fund for Ontario, or that the plan called for the province to take over Toronto’s subways and that hasn’t been worked out. There is no actual proposal for Ontario’s plan – the kind with construction plans, ridership studies, cost analysis and so on. There are recent proposals for four particular projects that would be part of that plan. Mr. Ford’s demand to see Ottawa’s money is immature rhetoric in place of nitty-gritty work. In the meantime, the feds have essentially had no GTA transit project to fund for a year.
But it takes a cynical politician’s twist to assert baldly that the infrastructure-funding slowdown led to Bombardier’s layoffs. The Liberals jumped at a chance to pin it on Mr. Ford.
Infrastructure proposals move at a snail’s pace through approvals and planning to orders. Even if the Toronto Transit Commission had riches at its disposal, it’s not certain it would place a big immediate order for rail cars, or that it would go to Bombardier. Both the TTC and Metrolinx have complained of problems or delays with recent Bombardier orders, as it happens. Maybe without the funding slowdown, Bombardier might have received more work, but it wasn’t the smoking gun that killed those jobs.
The company itself cited some other reasons for its layoffs, such as the cyclical nature of the business, and Buy American rules in the United States which, it said, make it hard to win U.S. orders for Canadian-made rail cars.
So blame Mr. Ford’s government for his unplanned transit plans, and blame the Liberals for being so quick to drop all the blame at the feet of their favourite political adversary. Blame both for spending the day finger-pointing.