John Tory pipes up

The mayor lets ideology stand in the way of a good idea, but he doesn’t quite see it that way

Last week, in prefacing a speech to city council, Mayor John Tory said something revealing.

“I’ll take a few minutes longer than the deputy mayor did,” Tory advised his colleagues on November 3, “to perhaps end up in the same place.”

The issue was a proposed program that would offer short-term loans of up to $2,500 to eligible homeowners to encourage them to replace dangerously toxic lead pipes carrying city water from their property lines to their houses. Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong was opposed. 

“It’s very easy to fix your pipes,” Minnan-Wong said. “All you do is go to the bank and Get. A. Loan.”

Blunt, to-the-point and deeply ideological, the deputy mayor was his fiercely right-wing self, waving off a staff-recommended program that would cost the city nothing and help thousands of (disproportionately low-income) homeowners remove toxins from their drinking water [pdf]. 

Never mind that – as Councillor Shelley Carroll, a former bank teller, put it – obtaining small loans from banks is “a living hell for the middle class right now.” Or that the city may actually be increasing lead exposure in any home whose owner doesn’t simultaneously upgrade the pipes on their property when the city takes care of the municipal side. Government shouldn’t be giving loans, Minnan-Wong argued, and that was that.

And to the extent that Mayor Tory has a governing philosophy, his introduction summed it up perfectly: what Denzil said, but longer and more roundabout.

“I first of all just don’t think we should be looking for occasions at all to be in the loan business,” Tory said in starting a speech that, by word count, was 18.6 times longer than Minnan-Wong’s. “Because we’re not in the loan business. I mean, we are in the government business.”

He had trouble understanding why the city would issue a loan only after a homeowner has already spent the money to have a contractor do the work. (Participants in the program would receive pre-approval for the loan, front the money themselves and then show the city an invoice for the finished work. They’d receive the loan as a lump-sum payment and repay it through their property tax bill over the following five years.) Tory found it bizarre that the city would go out of its way to assist someone who already had immediate access to money, even if it’s through a credit card.

But more fascinatingly, Tory’s meanderings excavated some of the very particular assumptions underpinning his objections.

Expressing skepticism that the administration of the program could possibly be as straightforward as staff suggested, he said, “I come from the school that sort of says, I’m doubtful any time that I hear the government saying – any government, or any big organization, I’ll extend it to that – saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s simple, we’ll just add two boxes to a form and it’ll get ticked off, and we don’t need any extra staff.’ It just never turns out that way.”

He elaborated: “This is a prescription in a big organization, especially government, for trouble,” and, “I feel badly about it [opposing the program] because it does not sit properly with me – that we should be in the loan business. We’re not a bank. And I don’t think we should try to become a bank.”

In these respects, the mayor actually trod closer to the stated reasoning of Councillor Stephen Holyday, son of former deputy mayor Doug Holyday, who, like his father, is not shy about putting complex issues in monochromatic, quasi-libertarian terms.

“What I see is the collective belt of government growing,” said Holyday about the program, which would not in fact involve hiring any additional staff. “I gotta let a notch out of the big virtual belt around us…. It is just simply another program, growing and growing and growing.”

It was at the final meeting of the previous city council in August 2014 that councillors voted unanimously to ask staff to develop the “self-funded loan program” for lead-pipe removal. (Even both Fords voted in favour.)

Last week, council rejected the program by a vote of 12-23 the opposition included 14 councillors who’d supported the earlier request to develop it. They did, however, pass a motion from Jaye Robinson, chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, to have staff “approach local financial institutions” to ask if they would be so kind as to offer low-interest loans to homeowners for the same purpose. (On the plus side, Robinson’s motion also asked staff to look into including lead-pipe replacement as an essential repair covered by Toronto Renovates, a program that subsidizes low-income seniors and people with disabilities.)


City of Toronto

At his swearing-in last December, Mayor Tory pledged, “I will not let ideology of any kind stand in the way of a good idea or doing what is right.”

It was an ambitious promise and probably impossible to fulfill, but nevertheless worthwhile. No decision of any kind can be divorced from ideology, given that it’s by definition the frame through which every person views the world. But it’s arguably possible for a given decision to be more or less ideological, depending on the weight assigned to the specifics of a matter versus an abstract set of principles.

Because Tory premised much of his objection to the loan program on his general wariness of the role of government, this would appear to be a pretty clear contradiction of his pledge.

But Tory, unsurprisingly, does not see it that way.

“If they’re people who need this help from us, then I would think that they would have the means to go and take out the loans themselves, which isn’t a matter of ideology – it’s simply a matter of practicality,” he said the next day in response to a question from NOW about how he reconciles his position with his earlier promise. “And so it wasn’t a matter of ideology. If you said to me, ‘Is it an ideological belief?’ I’d say no, it’s a practical belief that I don’t happen to believe that government does these things very well, generally speaking.”

Former councillor John Parker followed the debate on Twitter and upon its conclusion tweeted, “City council had a practical solution to the lead pipe problem right in its hands, and threw it out the window. Extraordinary.”

Parker is an unabashed conservative who served as a backbench MPP in the provincial government of Mike Harris. But, especially toward the latter part of his 2006-14 tenure on council (and in the year after), his views on city issues often differed from those of other right-wingers.

“The more time I spent at City Hall, the more I developed the view that a modern big city is a living, breathing, interwoven mechanism, and we all have to accommodate the needs and interests of the people around us,” he says. “And we have to find the right way… to make everything work together effectively.”

He was “floored” when he found out council had voted against the loan program. “It wasn’t a matter of growing government,” Parker says. “It was a matter of using resources that are available to us in a responsible, cost-effective way to solve a problem that, in effect, we all share. 

“I would’ve thought that’s what good conservative principles are all about.” | @goldsbie

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