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Toronto mayors must tread carefully during federal elections
April 24, 2019
David Nickle

In early April, Mayor John Tory took the podium with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he announced his governing Liberals’ $1.3-billion plan to repair 58,000 crumbling Toronto Community Housing units.

Just the day before, Tory sat down in a closed-door meeting with federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, to talk about Toronto’s needs and priorities, before speaking together in front of cameras and reporters.

And in just a few months, voters across the country will be going to the polls -- in a race whose outcome, according to early 2019 polls, is by no means certain.

The three events are not unrelated.

Toronto may legally be subservient to the provincial government, in constitutional terms. But as Canada’s largest city -- with perhaps the largest concentration of news media -- the presence of its mayor carries weight, and the mayor’s voice can carry far.

The question then becomes: how should a mayor use that voice in a federal election?

The late Rob Ford was resolutely partisan, maintaining a close relationship with former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and a somewhat more distant relationship with Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak (but still campaigned for the party in 2013).

Former Toronto mayor David Miller, meanwhile, took a very deliberate approach to his role in federal and provincial elections in the two terms he served from 2003-2010.

In a wide-ranging interview, Miller described a strategy that was “very deliberate and thoughtful.”

“The strategy had more subtleties, but simply put, we decided that in order for Toronto’s financial needs to get met and us to build the kind of infrastructure for the future that we needed, we required a significant share of provincial and federal tax revenues,” said Miller.

Toward that end, Miller said that his office and staff in the city manager’s office did considerable work between elections: building alliances on key issues with other like-sized cities and smaller municipalities -- and crucially, honing those issues down to only the most important: in his case, gathering revenues like the gas tax to fund transit and housing.

“Every other issue we tried to put away and not allow to percolate up,” said Miller.

When it came to elections, Miller made a point of staying at least a step away from the partisanship that Ford later embraced. In federal elections, he endorsed individual candidates from both the New Democratic Party and the Liberals who had been helpful with Miller’s urban agenda -- but not Conservatives, who he said did not offer a platform that he felt would be beneficial to the city.

But Miller made an effort to keep his own earlier affiliation with the NDP out of the picture.

“It’s not just not appearing to be partisan it’s not being partisan,” said Miller. “The mayor of Toronto represents everybody, and you have to find a way to work with a government whether or not it’s one you agree with.”

In an interview, Tory -- who has much stronger links to the Progressive Conservative Party as its former leader in Ontario -- noted that he has indeed been non-partisan in elections both federal and provincial, and said that has been reflected in his relationships with leaders of different political parties.

“I’m the leader of team Toronto,” said Tory. “I get invited by really good friends asking if I can come out to their fundraisers, and I say I can’t. I don’t belong to a party today.”

Tory noted that he maintained a good relationship with former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, in spiting of having gone toe-to-toe with her in her Don Valley West riding in the 2007 provincial election.

Miller suggested that Toronto’s focus on intergovernmental relations has declined since he was mayor nearly a decade ago. Tory said that’s not the case -- and according to city spokesperson Brad Ross, the Strategic and Corporate Policy Division oversees intergovernmental relations. City staff work closely with staff in Tory’s office, and as happened during Miller’s tenure, engage with counterparts at the federal and provincial government.

Tory said that his priorities are broader than Miller’s were but still “fairly confined to housing, the waterfront, obviously community safety and I’ve added mental health to that.”

“Also, David Miller may have done this and I know Rob Ford did not do this -- but I have very regular meetings with MPs and MPPS from the city so we can have two-way communications. I have found over the past five years that those people are very helpful at raising issues in caucus,” Tory said.

Tory won’t endorse a party -- or candidates for that matter -- in elections. But he has made a point of meeting with party leaders as the campaign unfolds -- as he did with Scheer and Trudeau recently. He also made a point of doing in the last federal election in 2015.

“The best thing I could do was get all three leaders to come to see me at city hall and I ended up meeting each of them twice,” said Tory. “I could go through a lot of issues with them, and fairly specific requests we had for transit and housing. My desired outcome was to have all three of the leaders agree to our requests -- that eliminated the risk in the election.”

Tory points to some success in that strategy.

“We’ve got billions in transit funding that we did not have, we have a billion dollars now for Toronto Community Housing repairs, we have a national housing strategy (and) money for the waterfront,” he said.

But navigating an election in the context of those requests -- and those potential gains -- is a complex business, Tory acknowledged.

“All of those things are complicated, and they get more complicated when elections happen at those other levels of government, and the governments change. You get used to dealing with the people that are there , and when they get changed. It’s complicated.”