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Edward Keenan: John Tory's plans are one thing— when is it time for action?

After the tumultuous Rob Ford years, voters looked to John Tory as a stabilizing force. Now the question ought to be, how willing are we to achieve Toronto's big plans?

Under Mayor John Tory the city has been made real progress when it comes to developing good plans. But they don't always get funded under budget chair Gary Crawford. That, columnist Edward Keenan writes, sets up an essential question for next year's election.

Staff/Metroland

Under Mayor John Tory the city has been made real progress when it comes to developing good plans. But they don't always get funded under budget chair Gary Crawford. That, columnist Edward Keenan writes, sets up an essential question for next year's election.

There’s a line in one of the city budget briefing notes that presents a handy summary of the progress of our city council under John Tory.

“The majority of the budget proposals that the reviewers identified as having positive equity impacts are not included in the preliminary operating budget,” the note reads, “but are on the list of proposals provided to budget committee and council for review.”

This observation comes from the external reviewers studying the “equity impacts of changes in the 2018 operating budget” — in particular they’re studying proposed changes for their effects on gender equity and low-income people — and was first brought to my attention by a tweet from my Metro colleague Matt Elliott.

It’s worth noting that the budget process is a long one — this one won’t be approved by city council until February — and that the mayor and budget chief Gary Crawford have said they support funding many of the things the briefing note mentions as being left out, such as anti-poverty measures, an anti-Black racism action plan and an Indigenous office.

Whatever the specific result for any of these particular measures, the simple sentence noting that the majority of the measures that would make the city a more equitable place to live that have been passed by council remain left out of the default budget proposal as presented by staff stuck with me. Because coming from an election-year budget document, it seems like neat shorthand for how far the city has come, and how far it still has to go, after almost one full term under Mayor Tory.

The fact we’re looking at a briefing note about the equity impacts of the budget is itself a signal of change (the city only began preparing such reports after a motion by Kristyn Wong-Tam in 2016, albeit one Tory voted against, but one his council passed). And its conclusions show a dramatic change, because they are about things the city leadership wants to do and may put into the budget, rather than things the city leadership wants to cut and may eliminate from the budget.

Anyone who paid even passing attention to city politics earlier this decade will recognize the sea change this represents.

Under Mayor Rob Ford, the budget process was little more than a drawn out fight about what should be cut and how deeply. Doug Ford would muse that the city was lousy with unneeded libraries, Mayor Rob would go on TV and suggest all community grants be eliminated, consultants would suggest the city could stop fluoridating the water and shoveling snow on side streets. Then people would line up all night to plead to have the services they depended on preserved.

If we’re instead talking about plans to build up the city and make its services better, that’s progress.

Under John Tory, the city has developed such plans — a bunch of them. In his annual state-of-the-city address this fall to an audience at the University of Toronto, city manager Peter Wallace kicked off his presentation in part by noting the city has “a whole bunch of really good plans … that council has approved on an aspirational basis, for a transportation and transit network, fighting poverty through TO ProsperityTenants FirstTransform Toronto which is our effort to show some leadership in actually combating the key sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and a whole variety of things, and we’ll continuously add and frankly do add to that list in every council meeting.”

Wallace stressed that these were, in his opinion, “really good plans.” They are practical, they make sense together. “If implemented,” he said, “they will actually make a tangible difference in the quality of life of our residents.”

But obviously, there’s that “if.” That the city has not just aspirations, but concrete plans to accomplish them, is great. Accomplishing them requires a further step: paying to implement them. The obstacle to getting there is John Tory’s other mayoralty-defining program, of holding the line on property tax increases.

“The question is,” Wallace said of all these great plans, “can we actually get there?”

That may be a useful framing for the next election, I think. After the tumultuous Rob Ford years, many voters looked to Tory as a stabilizing force, the ultimate moderate. Now that things have settled down, and we have plans to accomplish much, the question ought to be, are we willing to move aggressively to achieve these plans?

Toronto Mayor John Tory, left, and Mike Wilson, Waze's Canada lead, look at screen displaying traffic information.

David Rider/ Torstar News Services

Toronto Mayor John Tory, left, and Mike Wilson, Waze's Canada lead, look at screen displaying traffic information.

We have Doug Ford already promising to be on the ballot with his answer to that question, which is “no.” He represents those who think these plans aren’t worth accomplishing in the first place, and that we ought to scale everything back.

The question is who will represent the city of “yes”? Who will be the candidate of taking these really great plans and getting them done — and footing the bill to make sure it happens?

It could be Tory himself. He could go to the electorate and say, “In this first term, I kept my promise to hold the line on property taxes. During that time, we’ve made some progress, and we’ve done the work to plan out what more substantial progress would take, and where it would take us. Give me a new mandate to actually get us there.” He could do that, though if he’s planning to he certainly hasn’t given any public signals of it yet.

He could perhaps more predictably present himself again as the slightly-less-Ford moderate, continuing to oppose necessary tax hikes but continuing to encourage really good plans that will remain aspirational. As an election strategy, it might work. The allure of dreaming of big returns while insisting on paying small amounts is powerful — it’s the reason lotteries are so profitable.

That would leave a lane open for another candidate — and for council candidates — to say yes not just to plans, but to decisive action.

We should hope someone represents that option. We’ve come a long way as a city recently, we really have. But we still have far to go.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca. Follow: @thekeenanwire

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