Dennis Mills has long been a walking, talking symbol of all that's wrong with the federal Liberal government's treatment of Toronto. But the beleaguered Toronto-Danforth MP made the Grits' shortcomings even more obvious when he showed up at an all-candidates debate in his waterfront riding Monday night (June 21) to defend himself against NDP leader Jack Layton, Green party boss Jim Harris, Tory lawyer Loftus Cuddy and a couple of articulate young guys representing the Marxist-Leninist and Marijuana parties.
This was no ordinary forum, as the 150 or so folks who stood outside the packed Jimmie Simpson community centre in the rain listening to the verbal slugfest on loudspeakers will attest.
They got little satisfaction from the incumbent parliamentarian. Oh, Mills went on the red-faced defensive, all right.
But more intriguing was how far the four-term MP had to harken back in time to muster even a semblance of sustained accomplishment. Like, did he really expect people to be impressed by his long-ago vote against the Meech Lake Accord, when this city has been unable to reach its own accord with Ottawa in spite of the fact that every Toronto seat in the House of Commons was filled by a Grit?
By the time Mills started going on about how the "Trudeau vision of Canada is alive and well," it was clear to just about everyone in and around the Queen Street gymnasium that the red-tie guy has been (and still is) operating in a completely different political time zone.
That's been the case for far too many members of the local Liberal caucus. Like Mills, they've seemed blissfully unaware of what's been going on here at home. That's a huge reason why a lot of them are in serious danger of losing their seats, and no amount of "better the devil you know" scare-mongering can rescue them.
But a minority government could actually be a very good thing for the city, regardless of whether the official stationery is predominantly red or goes heavy on blue. And a solid core of Toronto MPs in the federal NDP caucus will go a long way toward ensuring that the concerns of Canada's largest city are no longer ignored by the national government.
A Liberal minority government supported by Layton's New Democrats would provide Toronto with the most political leverage. Fail to address the city's need for that long-overdue "new deal" with Ottawa and watch the coalition collapse as a prelude to another federal election and the prospect of even more Grit seats being lost to the Forces of Darkness.
"A Liberal minority with a strong NDP contingent from Toronto and Toronto's in terrific shape," says Mayor David Miller. "We'll actually be able to force the government to live up to its promises, so it will be very, very positive."
But that doesn't mean the most likely alternative - a Conservative minority propped up by the Bloc Quebecois - is necessarily a bad thing.
"It's a bit harder to figure out what the situation will be," Miller says of the possible Tory-Bloc pairing, "but it is not without hope."
Get past the two parties' "synergy" on the matter of provincial rights, the mayor suggests, and the Bloc is just another bunch of devoted social democrats who "believe in government support for people." They certainly aren't going to be big on Conservative economic policy.
"The Bloc will support a whole range of issues that matter to the people of Toronto," Miller predicts. "I would expect they'd support things like public transit, childcare funding and affordable housing. Although it would be a different challenge, we'd certainly have some reason for hope that there'll be a new deal for cities."
And having Layton and his band of local New Democrats in the House of Commons will ensure that the city's case gets a proper hearing, the mayor believes.
"Jack's not just the leader of the NDP," Miller notes. "As the former head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the cities platform is a core part of who he is and of the NDP agenda. I think there's a real opportunity, if we get a strong core of New Democrats, to make real change regardless of who's in power."
Hopelessly optimistic? We'll see.