Slim Tory Pickin’s

Rating: NNNNNif you're trying to figure out what influence the city of Toronto has had on the Ontario Progressive Conservative.

Rating: NNNNN

if you’re trying to figure out what influence the city of Toronto has had on the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership contest, consider this: the one would-be premier who actually represents a riding in the provincial capital appears destined to finish dead last in the five-candidate race.This has nothing to do with the fact that Chris Stockwell, the minister of labour, is also the only contestant who refused to respond to a questionnaire Mayor Mel Lastman sent the premierial wannabes demanding to know what they plan to do for his municipality.

Heck, Tony Clement, the health minister, proposed a nebulous seven-point “New Deal for Toronto” pledging to give the city “the tools it needs to be a great place to live, to work and to visit.” Yet internal Tory polls indicate he’ll be barely ahead of Stockwell (the Etobicoke Centre MPP whose real ambition, some suggest, is to be Toronto’s next chief magistrate) in the single-digit realm of delegate support on the first ballot at Saturday’s leadership convention.

Clement, you may recall, sought a seat on the old Metropolitan Toronto council in 1994 (he lost to David Miller) before leaving the city to seek fame and political fortune as the provincial PeeCee rep for Brampton West-Mississauga.

Maybe Clement should have moved further afield. Because when it comes to Tory leadership prospects, a candidate’s chances seem to improve dramatically with the distance travelled away from Queen’s Park. Just ask Ernie Eves, the pride of Parry Sound. Although Eves has taken up residence in Toronto with “life partner” Isabel Bassett (the former culture minister and now TVO boss), don’t count on his seeking a seat in the Big City if he’s sworn in to replace Mike Harris as premier. It would probably cost the Conservatives votes elsewhere in Ontario.

And there are also fears in Tory circles that doing much of anything for the capital prior to the next provincial election would have similar consequences for a governing party that’s trailing badly behind the opposition Liberals in the latest polls.

Under such circumstances, it’s the Grits from whom Lastman and city council should start exacting meaningful promises of support. As the mayor finally conceded this week, the Tories “are not really answering the questions” he put to them months ago. “They don’t understand. They’ve got to stop downloading on the cities.’

That said for the umpteenth time in recent memory, the mayor is refusing to endorse any of the candidates for Tory leader. “No, I’ve stayed away,” Lastman said. “Whoever becomes the premier, I have to deal with, and I’d rather not take sides.” One must ask, then, why he bothered sending the leadership hopefuls his survey?

Only Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer deigned to show up at City Hall for a courtesy visit with Lastman. That probably had a lot to do with the fact Rod Phillips, the mayor’s former chief-of-staff, has been the brains behind Witmer’s campaign.

The lines of communication between Queen’s Park and City Hall would probably improve dramatically with Witmer in the premier’s office and Phillips playing a key administrative role. Unfortunately, recent polls indicate the Kitchener-Waterloo MPP has slipped to third place behind Jim Flaherty, the finance minister and deputy premier.

In spite of what Lastman has said about staying away from the Tory popularity contest, he unleashed a bizarre attack on Flaherty recently after the finance minister suggested Toronto council get its own financial act together. In what can best be characterized as a classic case of the kettle calling the pot black, the mayor accused Flaherty of “shamelessly grandstanding. This is not the first time we have seen him make ridiculous, extreme comments,” Lastman said of the Whitby-Ajax MPP.

So much for the mayor being in a position to deal with whoever becomes the next premier. In the past, he has also likened Stockwell to an “organ grinder’s monkey” and was openly contemptuous of Clement during his tenure as municipal affairs minister.

Some are already wondering how the narcissistic Lastman will ever get along with Eves should the self-indulgent clothes horse with a personal penchant for all things expensive end up on top of the Tory heap. The relationship between a greased-back premier and the hair-plugged mayor could rapidly devolve into a gaudy battle of egos to decide who has the biggest diamond cufflinks and the flashiest Rolex. Things could get ugly.

Alas, so long as the Tories are in power at Queen’s Park and Lastman’s chauffeured limo is parked in the City Hall garage, Toronto’s place in the provincial food chain is unlikely to change much. “Why would the Tories reverse the flow of money out of Toronto into the 905 area and beyond?” asks David Miller, the councillor for Ward 13 (Parkdale-High Park). “That’s where they got elected and that’s why they amalgamated the 416. It’s not ideology, it’s pork-barrelling, and it got them re-elected. If they lose seats there now, they’re gone.’

Case Ootes, the deputy mayor and a card-carrying member of the Ontario Conservative party, was hard pressed to disagree with his NDP colleague. “I suspect “not giving in to Toronto’ plays well outside of the city,” the councillor for Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) acknowledged.’ Ootes will be casting a ballot for a new Tory leader at the Convention Centre on Saturday. But he has yet to make up his mind about who to support.

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