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In the 2018 election, John Tory must aim higher than 'not being Rob Ford': Hume

No one expected that Valérie Plante, the progressive councillor, would take down veteran Denis Coderre in the Montreal mayoral election.

Mayor John Tory listens to debate on expanded gambling at Woodbine Race Track at City Hall in Toronto. July 8, 2015.

Steve Russell / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Mayor John Tory listens to debate on expanded gambling at Woodbine Race Track at City Hall in Toronto. July 8, 2015.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Toronto mayoral election next year is John Tory's to lose. But when Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre was unexpectedly tossed from office last week, conventional wisdom went with him.

Suddenly, it seems, anything goes. Coderre, after all, was no right-wing dinosaur whose time finally ran out. Neither was he an inept, anti-government, city-hating populist. A veteran politician, and former federal Liberal cabinet minister, Coderre was experienced, competent and affable. No surprise the Montreal Gazette declared him worthy of a second term.

But no one counted on Valérie Plante, the Projet Montréal councillor who defeated Coderre. First elected to council in 2013, she was a relative neophyte when she became mayor.

Plante is the latest of a series of progressive mayors across Canada. That includes Naheed Nenshi (Calgary), Don Iveson (Edmonton) and Gregor Robertson (Vancouver). Though Nenshi was thought to be in a tight race in last month's election, he won with just under 50 per cent of the vote.

In other words, urban Canada is overwhelmingly centre-left in its politics. The glaring exception, of course, is Toronto. In the aftermath of amalgamation — imposed by the province in 1998 — three of the city's four chief magistrates have been conservatives. John Tory is the latest of many Tories to reach the highest office in Toronto.

When Tory was elected in 2014 it was enough that he wasn't Rob Ford. Coderre, by contrast, rose to power by promising to clean up city hall after a number of mayors faced corruption charges. Tory, on the other hand, won by adopting Ford's agenda more or less intact. The difference was that he had better manners, knew how to finish a sentence and didn't smoke crack cocaine. But that may no longer be enough.

What happens in 2018 remains to be seen, of course. Tory hasn't distinguished himself during his tenure, which he has spent courting the suburban vote at the cost of “old” Toronto.

Perhaps the most obvious examples are his indifference to the city's most pressing transit need, the downtown relief line, and his support for the infamous $3.35-billion one-stop Scarborough subway extension, arguably the most wilful decisions ever made by a Toronto mayor. At the same time, during his term the TTC has failed to keep up with demand. The streetcar lines are slow and overcrowded and buses few and far between. Subways are great, when they're working.

Instead, Tory remains fixated on congestion. But his endless tweaks — most recently, “quick-clear squads” and the recent King St. pilot project — have yet to make a dent in gridlock. Neither will rebuilding the east end of the Gardiner Expressway, a retro-scheme to which Tory has committed $1.5 billion against the advice of city staff.

As for the other huge issue facing Toronto — affordable housing — the Tory regime has made a bad situation worse.

Given that transit and affordable housing were also major issues in the Montreal election, Tory's mayoral claims suddenly look a whole lot less convincing. Tory's unwillingness to put 20th-century ideas behind him and help prepare Toronto for the modern age doesn't bode well. Think of how Toronto has handled bike lanes. Certainly, younger voters, who do not look to the past as the measure of how things should be, want a mayor who shares their commitment to the city and its qualities — density, diversity and dynamism.

These are the lessons of Montreal. But who will be our Valérie Plante? Mike Layton, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Josh Matlow?

Coderre's weakness was his perceived arrogance. That has never been the rap against Tory. But although he is the embodiment of humility, he also has a Family Compact-like belief in his natural right to power. Despite the self-deprecation, there's a father-knows-best attitude lurking just beneath the surface. A good example is his decision not to let the facts get in the way of his Scarborough subway plan.

In 2014, the issue was Rob Ford. No longer. Outside the wilds of north Etobicoke, the Fords are a spent force. The city has moved on. Just weeks ago, the future came knocking at Toronto's door in the form of Sidewalk Labs' waterfront scheme. So far, Tory has had little to say about it. Although Sidewalk's arrival has occasioned endless chatter here and abroad, nobody took the time to find out what the mayor thinks. Apparently, it never occurred to anyone to ask.

Christopher Hume’s column appears weekly. He can be reached at jcwhume4@gmail.com

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