Global Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Friends or foes? Reconciliation within local government

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A black and white photo of a chess match. Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

This article spotlights the tension and progression of Toronto’s local government over the past few years as party rivals become partners in spearheading local initiatives for the wider community. What’s that old saying again? Keep your friends close… This case study illuminates why local government should lead by example in a time of increasing polarisation. Perhaps working together and finding a middle ground may offer the best outcome for all.

The timeline of events

Like many cities worldwide, Toronto is politically divided between its downtown core and its suburbs. In recent elections, downtown has uniformly cast votes for progressive candidates while the suburbs have trended conservative.

Skyscraper photo of Toronto.
Skyscraper photo of Toronto. Photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash

2010: Back in 2010, Toronto elected Rob Ford as mayor. For the next thirteen years, conservative mayors – Ford and his successor John Tory – governed the city.

During this time, the media and people of all political persuasions noticed a deterioration in public services, arguably as a result of Ford and Tory refusing to raise taxes, as well as a set of persistent problems that nobody seemed to be able to solve. These included:

  • The decade-plus-long construction of the Eglinton Crosstown line;
  • The decommissioning of the Scarborough Rapid Transit line with no replacement;
  • The need either to repair or demolish the crumbling Gardiner Expressway;
  • There was also the spiralling cost of housing – with some estimates putting Toronto as the least affordable city in the world;
  • All combined with a homelessness crisis and a wave of violence in the city’s subway system.

2018: Then, in the middle of the 2018 municipal election campaign, Ontario Premier Doug Ford (brother of the late former Toronto mayor Rob Ford) unilaterally cut Toronto’s city council in half.

A premier is the chief minister of a provincial government. Because of the shared framework of cabinet government, the office of provincial premier is similar to that held by Canada’s Prime Minister. The policy direction and management of the provincial governments is visibly dominated by their premiers.

2020: By the onset of Covid-19, Torontonians worried openly about Toronto being a city in decline.

2023: In February 2023, just months after he had won reelection to a historic third term, John Tory resigned in light of revelations of his affair with a staffer. In the subsequent byelection, a progressive, Olivia Chow, won, with support from not only downtown but swathes of the suburbs as well.

It was a divisive campaign with a slate of candidates that ran the breadth of the political spectrum, from right-wing law-and-order types (including a former chief of police) to centrists, to leftists. Chow – a well-known political figure with decades of experience as a Toronto city councillor, federal MP, community activist, and wife of the late former leader of the federal New Democratic Party, Jack Layton – was in pole position from the get-go.

This drew fire from conservatives including Premier Ford, who warned that she would be an “unmitigated disaster” as mayor.

The current state of play

Remarkably, since being elected, Chow has not borne grudges. Quite the opposite. She has kept many political opponents on her executive committee, committed to a collaborative style of government to focus on solving the city’s issues, and, most surprisingly of all, established a constructive working relationship with Doug Ford’s provincial government—more constructive, in fact, than the one enjoyed by her predecessor, the more ideologically aligned John Tory.

And it all seems to be working. The “new deal for Toronto” that she has struck with Premier Ford is particularly important. This agreement uploads financial responsibility for the beleaguered Gardiner Expressway in exchange for the city dropping opposition to the redevelopment of a lakefront former theme park called Ontario Place. This has freed up billions of dollars in the city’s capital budget that could go a long way to setting the city back on the right track.

Insights from an expert onlooker

To get a grip on this unexpected success story of cross-party collaboration, we spoke to award-winning Toronto journalist Matt Elliott, who has closely observed and reported on the internal running of Toronto’s City Council over the last decade and is behind the acclaimed City Hall Watcher newsletter.

Q: How does the relationship work between the Toronto and Ontario governments?

For context: Constitutionally, provinces can take unilateral action leaving cities with no legal recourse. However, this is frowned upon and can leave room for municipal government to pressure the province into meeting it halfway. 

Toronto’s relationship with the provincial government is definitely more dysfunctional than functional. The former mayor, John Tory, said once that he felt like a “little boy in short pants” who had to call on the Premier of Ontario for permission to do things, which I think is probably the perfect summation of things. There’s a real paternalistic dynamic to it. If you look at any agenda for a meeting of Toronto City Council, you’ll see lots of things that basically just amount to requests for the provincial government. Most of these are summarily ignored.

In practice, then, the relationship is more about politics than process. If a mayor or local politician wants to make something happen that requires provincial sign-off, their best approach is to develop a political strategy that combines public and private advocacy.

Q: The Gardiner Expressway and Ontario Place have both been fraught political issues for decades and no leader has been able to make a solution stick. What will the new arrangement mean for the city?

For content: Various ideas have been proposed over the years, like reconstruction or demolition plans, funding schemes, and tolls for the Gardiner; for Ontario Place, either selling it off to a private developer or turning it into a park.

Ontario Place, Toronto, Canada.
Ontario Place is a 155-acre tourist attraction located on the Lake Ontario shoreline in Toronto. Operated by the Province of Ontario, the park opened on 22 May 1971 and is now set to be redeveloped without any city council interference. Photo by Frank Castro on Unsplash
Gardiner Expressway in Toronto at night time.
The construction of the Gardiner Expressway in the 1950s meant the demolition of homes and a popular amusement park, paving over parkland and creating a long elevated barrier between the city and its lake. It has always been a contentious issue, especially due to the financial burden it places on Toronto City Council. Photo by Brian Jones on Unsplash

From a financial perspective, the Gardiner is a huge deal. Maintaining—and effectively rebuilding it, piece by piece, Ship of Theseus-style—this one highway was taking up about half of the city’s road maintenance budget for the next decade. It was hoovering up so much money that the city had little to spend maintaining other transportation projects. Getting it off the books will immediately free up about $1.9bn in budgeted funds, and will likely help to avoid billions more because it’s virtually a certainty that the city has been underestimating the true costs of the project.

The downside is that by giving up the highway, the city also gives up any control it had of the highway’s future. There are lots of people who wonder whether it makes sense to have a waterfront expressway in 2023, and more who probably wonder if it’ll still make sense in 2043 or 2063, or whenever, given how transportation is projected to change.

On Ontario Place, specifically, I think the deal is more symbolic than it is substantive. This is almost entirely provincially owned land. The city had no real way to stop the project, and only a few ways to slow it down. The province has now passed legislation removing those potential roadblocks. I don’t think things would have played out much differently on Ontario Place in the absence of a New Deal. Maybe the mayor would be even more negative about the project in her speeches, but she’s still been pretty negative, even after the agreement was announced.

Q: This new arrangement—uploading the Gardiner to the province—was made necessary by Toronto’s budget woes. How did the city get into such dire straits?

Some people at City Hall like to blame Covid-19 for the recent financial challenge, but the truth is that these straits have been dire for a long time. In the late 90s, Toronto and its inner suburbs were forcibly amalgamated into one “megacity.” This was supposed to result in a boatload of budget savings due to efficiency, but those savings never materialised. At the same time, the first megacity mayor, Mel Lastman, froze property taxes — and thus property tax revenue — for three years straight. As a result, the new city came into this world as a total budget basket case, with revenues never really matching expenditures on anything resembling a healthy or sustainable basis. It wasn’t long after amalgamation that the city was coming to Queen’s Park – home to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario – seeking budget bailouts.

Over the years, things have been made worse by the fact that, unlike most other large cities, Toronto does not have direct access to revenues that grow with the economy, like a sales tax or income tax. The city still relies on property tax revenue to a degree generally unheard of in large cities. Couple that with several right-wing mayors who either froze property tax revenues or pledged to keep its growth below the rate of inflation – even as Toronto residents pay some of the lowest property tax rates in the Greater Toronto Area – and you end up in a really wobbly house of cards situation.

The pandemic came along like a gust of wind and just knocked the house of cards over. The city faced a sudden increase in shelter costs and a sudden loss of fare revenue, and the budget collapsed.

Q: For many, the agreement between the conservative Doug Ford and the progressive Olivia Chow comes as a shock. In light of all this, how did the two come together on this dramatic agreement? And do you think it will continue to be a productive relationship going forward?

Context: They faced off in the 2014 election, with both losing to the more centrist John Tory. Since becoming Ontario’s premier, Ford has demonstrated his willingness to exert provincial authority over municipalities, notably interfering in the 2018 municipal election. His negative rhetoric about Chow was evident even as recently as six months ago in the leadup to this year’s mayoral election, warning that she would be an “unmitigated disaster.” 

I think the pandemic changed Doug Ford a lot. He made his reputation as a conservative firebrand, always spoiling for a fight. His first year or two as premier saw a lot of that approach, too. But during the pandemic, he saw his approval rating skyrocket as people wanted to trust the government was making the right moves to keep them safe. After that, Ford, it seemed, really liked the feeling of being liked.

The blueprint for Chow was set by federal finance minister Chrystia Freeland, who helped turn what had been a combative relationship between Ford and the federal government (he came to office promising to sue the feds over the carbon tax) into practically a non-stop love-in, where Ford often sings the praises of Justin Trudeau and, particularly, Freeland.

Ford, I think, doesn’t really relish fighting anymore. He wants to have good relationships. Chow took advantage of that desire, by quickly and firmly setting up what the terms would need to be to have a good relationship. She needed him to make some big moves on a new deal for Toronto, and he did.

It’s notable that she easily dismissed the “unmitigated disaster” comment from the election as “just campaign talk.” It helps that she’s been around politics long enough to know that it doesn’t make sense to hold grudges, especially over stuff that’s said in the midst of campaigning.

Q: Finally, why does it seem as though Chow and Ford are working together better than Tory and Ford did, even though the latter pair are closer ideologically? Is ideological confrontation actually—even paradoxically—helpful in these relationships?

I think the potential for confrontation is definitely helpful.

While he had some other qualities that voters obviously liked quite a bit, Tory was never seen as much of a fighter. When the previous provincial government overruled his move to put road tolls on the Gardiner, Tory’s response basically amounted to expressing his disappointment but then moving on. On the other hand, Chow came into office suggesting she’d go forward with a plan to knock down the eastern part of the expressway.

That immediately upped the stakes of the conversation with Ford — he’d hate to lose any part of the highway — and demonstrated that she’s a sharper negotiator than Tory ever was.

Generally, though, I think the basic difference is that Ford never felt like he had to work to get a good relationship with Tory. Chow, who seemed ready to spend four years fighting Ford at every turn if that was what she felt was best for Toronto, took a different approach.



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