Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

The campaign promise John Tory should consider trashing

Mayor John Tory helped an Etobicoke family put their trash on the curb Jan. 11 as he rallied behind a plan to privatize more garbage collection in Toronto.
Mayor John Tory helped an Etobicoke family put their trash on the curb Jan. 11 as he rallied behind a plan to privatize more garbage collection in Toronto.

There’s a style of government that’s frustrating the hell out of me these days. Call it governing by checklist.

It sees leaders prioritize doing what they promised — checking an item off their list of campaign pledges — above the available evidence and data.

In Toronto, this looks to be playing out in a small way through the city’s ongoing debate over whether to further contract out garbage collection.

If you haven’t been following the city’s trash saga, here’s a quick recap.

Half the city’s garbage collection is contracted out to private collectors. The other half is done by city employees. When John Tory ran for mayor, he promised to contract out all city garbage collection.

But once in office, Tory’s privatization push ran into a pair of stubborn obstacles: facts and numbers.

A 2015 staff report revealed that, on a per-household basis, the public-sector collection in Scarborough was cheaper than the private collection in Etobicoke. Based on this and the risk attached to contracting out all service, the report recommended sticking with the status quo.

But now, more than a year later, there’s a new report on the same subject. This one suggests there might in fact be savings to be found in contracting out more garbage collection. Tory is enthusiastically in favour.

But here’s the twist: the numbers that might make that case aren’t being released publicly.

Updated cost comparisons between private and public collection are being kept confidential, for fear that revealing the numbers would negatively influence the contract bid process – even though that process has yet to be approved by anyone.

Secret numbers. Contradictory reports. All this trash talk smells pretty bad.

And it sure looks like a process geared toward achieving a political end – checking the box next to Tory’s campaign promise to contract out garbage collection.

That’s a problem, as it always is. Governing by checklist has become too common.

In America, Republicans are set to keep their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even though they have no workable replacement. In Canada, Stephen Harper kept a pledge to reduce the sales tax, even though economists said it was a bad idea.

And in Toronto, before Tory, Mayor Rob Ford attempted to keep a pledge to cancel the Transit City light rail projects, even though the move wasted at least $75 million and delayed transit for years.

None of this is to say that campaign promises aren’t important. They are. They shouldn’t be made lightly and leaders should be held to account.

But one item on every checklist should come before all others: evidence-based decision making.

Check that first.

This post was originally published at on 2017-01-23T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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