Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Cynical subway strategy pays off for Liberals in byelection win—but what now?

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Canada Published on Fri Aug 02 2013

There's not a whole lot to say about last night's provincial byelection results because, well, they were just byelections. Not a lot of people cared. Not a lot of people voted. By the time the next general election rolls around, the political landscape will have changed again and few will remember these races.

In Etobicoke-Lakeshore, where Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday won a seat for the Progressive Conservatives, the only fair conclusion to draw is that Holyday himself is personally popular and a great campaigner, and was able to beat a candidate whose political record was almost identical to his own. His win doesn't bode particularly well for leader Tim Hudak's chances at winning more seats in Toronto, unless the party is close to a breakthrough on technology that would allow them to create a terrifying army of cybernetic Holyday clones.

The most interesting and telling result came in Scarborough-Guildwood, where Mitzie Hunter donned a figurative cape as the “Subway Champion” and won a close race over PC candidate Ken Kirupa and the NDP's Adam Giambrone. The Liberal move to ditch plans for a funded and ready-to-start-construction LRT project in favour of a more populist extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line into Scarborough always seemed like the most desperate and cynical strategy. But here's the thing: it worked.

With Hunter's seat secured, the Liberals have denied Hudak's PCs a chance to establish themselves in Scarborough and build momentum by being the party to chant about subways while decrying “inferior” LRT. But having done that, the Liberals now face a whole new challenge. Because it's easy to talk about building a subway — it's a lot harder to actually build one.

Still, the savvy Liberals have actually set themselves up pretty nicely. There are a handful of workable scenarios regarding the subway, most of which leave the government looking pretty good — even if they don't deliver.

Here's what might happen:

Scenario One: The federal government comes forward with subway money, Mayor Rob Ford agrees to needed property tax increases to fund the city's share

If both these things happen, the subway may actually happen. The challenge is that it's a big ask for the federal government, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has never been a big fan of sending money to Toronto. The federal Conservatives will need to do some electoral math to figure out if the money will help them preserve their Toronto seats in 2015.

Ford, on the other hand, is a total wildcard. The property tax increases needed to fund the subway will not be the slight 0.25% increases he's talked about.

Scenario Two: The federal government doesn't come forward with subway money

This would kill the subway plan and see Metrolinx scramble to revert back to the LRT option, but it still works out great for the provincial Liberals, who can now continue to claim to be SUBWAY CHAMPIONS while putting all the blame on those jerks in Ottawa.

Scenario Three: The federal government comes forward with subway money, but Mayor Rob Ford and/or Toronto City Council refuse to endorse property tax plan to pay their share

Again, this may end up killing the subway project, but it'd still work out okay for the Liberals, who can leverage Ford's refusal to play ball and use it to make him look like a weak and ineffective mayor who is incapable of delivering the subways he promised.

In all three scenarios, the Liberals come out looking pretty good. But there is a fourth scenario that no one seems to acknowledge.

It goes like this:

Scenario Four: Total chaos, endless debate, nothing happens forever

Imagine if instead of getting a firm yes or no from the federal government on funding, we instead get a weak commitment for funds a couple of years down the line. That pushes the city's financing plan back by a year or two, which plunges us right into the 2014 municipal election with no firm transit plan for Scarborough. That opens the door to a gaggle of mayoral candidates who will undoubtedly champion their own radically different transit maps. The federal money for the Sheppard East LRT will get tossed around like a football. And all throughout, the TTC will be throwing millions of dollars into the Scarborough RT just to make sure it doesn't fall apart — and I don't think they'll be as successful with that as they assume they'll be.

The end result? Scarborough doesn't get subways, subways, subways. Scarborough gets buses, buses, buses.

But, hey, look on the bright side. The Liberals won the seat.

This post was originally published at on 2013-08-02T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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