Local Liberal MPPs are starting to get worried about the new City Of Toronto Act.
Some unfortunate mishandling of the accord still under negotiation between Queen's Park and City Hall could cause angry voters to seek electoral salvation elsewhere come 2007.
So it's not surprising that Brad Duguid, the Grit who represents Scarborough Centre in the legislature when he isn't doing his attack dog thing as parliamentary assistant to Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen, has been unleashed to turn the new act into a solid plank in the local Liberal campaign platform.
What is a bit shocking, however, is Pit Bull Duguid's intended victim. Why, it's Ontario Conservative leader John Tory, the mayoral candidate so enthusiastically endorsed by then-councillor Duguid against David Miller in 2003.
"John Tory turns his back on the new City Of Toronto Act; flip-flops on standing up for Toronto," is the heading on the Ontario Liberal news release issued last week to coincide with the "groundbreaking public meetings" on the act co-hosted by Gerretsen and Mayor Miller.
"You would think that as a former mayoral candidate, Tory would have taken a strong stand on this issue," Duguid says in the communiqué. "But just like every other issue, John Tory is flip-flopping." And then the gloves come off.
"While John Tory tries to figure out what, if anything, he stands for today, the (Premier Dalton) McGuinty government is moving forward with our plans to recognize Toronto as a mature level of government."
Never mind that just last fall the very same Duguid was publicly taking Miller to task for allegedly misrepresenting the level of provincial funding for public transit. And damned if back in February he wasn't all over his former colleagues for lacking the fortitude to make tough fiscal decisions.
But that was then and this is now. And now John Tory has "a responsibility to let the people know where he stands on things."
The official opposition leader is apparently flummoxed by the hostile words of his former cheerleader.
"Those comments are laughable, to say the least," Brendan Howe, Tory's communications director, said this week. "John Tory's advocacy and support for the city of Toronto are well known."
Duguid's own epistle to the media cites two occasions (one from the mayoral race, another from the recent provincial by-election campaign in Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey ) when the Conservative boss supported the city's demands for better financial treatment from Queen's Park and recognition of its unique position among Ontario municipalities.
But according to Gerretsen's aide, these statements mean nothing when put up against what Tory said roughly a month ago when he offered in a media scrum that "we shouldn't set up something that creates two different sets of rules for people doing business in Ontario."
What that remark has to do with the new City Of Toronto Act is anyone's guess, but it was clearly evidence enough for Duguid to let fly with flip-flopping charges.
Miller is quick to defend his former mayoral opponent.
"I think in the end Mr. Tory is pretty much onside," the chief magistrate says. "Torontonians want an end to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board), they want their city to have the power to plan, and they want their city to be properly financed."
But, Miller adds, "the fact that the provincial Liberals are starting to make it a political issue" by pitting the McGuinty government against Tory and the opposition is helpful to the city's cause in the continuing negotiations regarding future municipal powers and governance models.
He's convinced Duguid's attack is a response to last week's public consultations, where more than 500 people turned out to discuss the act.
"This is a political reaction to that," Miller says. In other words, the Grits want to be seen as leading the parade, and they'll do whatever it takes to avoid the appearance that they're being pushed by their political opponents at Queen's Park.
"It's a very important piece of legislation for the Toronto caucus," Duguid conceded during an interview this week. "We're really talking about the future of our city. One of the reasons why we came to Queen's Park in the first place was to bring the message that Toronto is unsustainable and requires the tools to become more sustainable."
But up until now, the local Grit MPPs haven't been very forceful in getting that message out. They've either been silent or, like Duguid, have been more active pointing out the perceived failings of the mayor and city councillors in their quest for the elusive new deal.
That has created a huge political opportunity for both the Tory-led Conservatives and the NDP. And it's one the opposition can readily exploit should the Liberals try to impose an unwanted governance structure (like a strong mayor system with an elected board of management) on the city.
Even Duguid has seemingly backed off from his calls for a government model that would require the mayor to bring forward a budget "that reflects the needs of the day rather than the hodge-podge of pet projects of various parochial-minded councillors."
"The province would like to avoid having to impose anything, because that runs contrary to the approach we're trying to take," he says. "If the city can come up with a model that works for everybody and provides for a better level of decision-making, we'd be very pleased."
You bet they would.
In the meantime, Duguid will be busy attacking that dreaded flip-flopper John Tory.