Federal NDP leader Jack Layton is never short of political ammunition to win his party Toronto seats in the House of Commons. Alas, the wily Liberals always seem to see the rounds coming - especially when it comes to the Toronto Port Authority.
Take Layton's latest attempt to drive the money-sucking scoundrels at the TPA from the city's turbulent waterfront once and for all.
Layton's written a letter to Joe Volpe, the Grit government's Toronto point man, asking that Auditor General Sheila Fraser be put on the case tout de suite.
Less than two years ago, Mayor David Miller and his newly elected city council killed the TPA's controversial plans for a bridge to the airport it operates on Toronto Island.
Authority brass had insisted that the fixed link was a must for the airstrip to survive.
But at its annual general meeting last week, Port Authority CEO Lisa Raitt confirmed it's planning to spend $5 million for a new double-decker ferry to an airport that lost $2.7 million last year providing service to 25,000 passengers (a fraction of the 200,000 paying customers facility brass insist are needed annually just to break even).
"In order to increase the passengers, one has to attract carriers," Raitt said of the TPA's search for more airlines. But she denied the ferry purchase represents a strategy to expand an airport the city wants shut down altogether if it manages to attract the 2015 World's Fair to the lakeshore. So what gives?
Layton says he finds it hard to believe the Port Authority is still losing money, considering all the taxpayer cash it has received in recent years.
First, there was the $60 million former mayor Mel Lastman and his council agreed to pay to settle a bizarre lawsuit dating back to before amalgamation. Then there's the $27 million in operational losses the city has picked up over the past decade and the $35 million the TPA was slipped by the feds this past spring. That's $122 million the TPA has given no accounting for. And that doesn't include the more than $25 million the city says it's owed in unpaid property taxes.
It was just this May that Transport Minister Jean Lapierre got around to signing the papers that supposedly ensure a bridge will never be built from Bathurst Quay to the money-losing Island airstrip. It was no coincidence that when Lapierre did his thing, the minority government Grits appeared to be on the brink. Unfortunately, none of this put a stop to the strange goings-on at the Authority.
"This makes no sense," Layton says of the situation. "I'll remind everybody that the sponsorship scandal [awaiting an investigative report from Justice John Gomery in mid-December] started out with funds in these orders of magnitude, and now we've got a similar scenario unfolding here."
Layton maintains that only an investigation by the auditor general can get to the bottom of the Port Authority's financial practices. He argues that although Fraser lacks the legislative authority to probe organizations working at arm's length from the federal government, she has the power to scrutinize Transport Canada's fiscal relationship with the TPA. After all, the Canada Marine Act prohibits the federal government from subsidizing the authority.
"Transport Canada ultimately has responsibility for the existence of the Toronto Island Airport and thus has responsibility to see that it is operated in a responsible and legal manner," says Layton in his letter to Volpe. As far as the NDP leader is concerned, the TPA is thumbing its nose at federal law on a number of fronts - including the purchase of a new ferry before proper environmental assessments.
Volpe was attending a federal Liberal caucus meeting in Regina this week and was unavailable for comment on Layton's letter. But Steve Heckbert, a spokesperson for the minister, said Volpe "takes all questions regarding the city of Toronto very seriously" and will respond to the missive once he's had an opportunity to consider its contents.
"I doubt that they'll be instantly amenable," Layton says. "But if the Liberals want to show some leadership here, they would first of all demand accountability from the Port Authority and force that by bringing in the auditor general."
Once Fraser has cleaned things up, Layton says the TPA "should be turned over to the city with all its assets. Let the democratic decision-making processes of Toronto determine what should happen next."
Considering that the prime minister has said that a federal election will be called within 30 days of Justice Gomery's submission of his report on the sponsorship scandal, it's unlikely the Grits will entertain the idea of letting the auditor general loose on the Port Authority at this time.
But it might not be too much to expect the government to follow through on Layton's call for the city to be given power over the TPA to counter the growing perception that it's nothing more than another launderette for federal Liberal largesse.
What better way to rob the NDP of artillery in the next election?