Monday morning, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath delivered a brief speech about transit funding to the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Rather than citing any preferred revenue tools, Horwath discussed the types of funding mechanisms that her party would and would not find acceptable. (Acceptable = things that are "fair and balanced." Unacceptable = things that would put a burden on "household budgets.")
Afterward, she faced a grilling from reporters in a tense and increasingly adversarial scrum, the kind that all politicians should more frequently be subjected to. Taking part were the Star's Richard J. Brennan, the Globe's Oliver Moore, Spacing's John Lorinc and myself.
Here is the transcript, which you may or may not find helps clarify Horwath's position:
Reporter: You say, "I'm not here today to tell you what our ideas are." I mean, you're short on specifics; this transit and gridlock, as you well know, has been around for a long time. What are you gonna do about it?
Horwath: There's no doubt that transit and gridlock are a big problem in this city, and we are looking forward to the Metrolinx plan that comes forward, and we know City Hall is in the process of consultations, we're doing our own consultations. This isn't a hurry-up kind of process, this is something we have to build some consensus around, and we have to have, I think, answers that people can get behind, and that's why we're keeping an open mind, and we're looking forward to the reports that are coming forward from the Metrolinx board.
Reporter: You sound like you've come late to a conversation that's been going on for several years in Toronto and that has, you know, expressed itself with the Metrolinx investment strategy and all of that. I mean, it sounds like you guys are just kicking the ball down the field, ragging the puck a bit, because it's, you know, extra taxes on people. So what's that about?
Horwath: On the contrary, we had a very solid plan in our last platform. In fact, we were the only party that was committed to taking fifty percent of the operating costs off of municipalities backs at the provincial level, so that we could help give municipalities room to invest in their capital side. We're very serious about this, not only for Toronto, but for all of the province. We've seen the province of Ontario, through the Liberal Party, get rid of $4 billion of Transit City funding. We saw them get rid of the bus replacement program. All of these things are taking us backwards. We want to go forward, but we want to do it in a way that is going to gain some consensus, so that people can get behind it. Because when it comes to big projects like this, we all know they're expensive and they're disruptive, and the best thing that we can do is actually flesh out these ides, flesh out this conversation, flesh out the debate, and make sure that we have a willing citizenry, if you will, that's prepared to get behind the tools that we do eventually have.
Reporter: You don't think that the people are actually willing to bear a personal cost, money has to come from somewhere else...
Horwath: What I'm saying is we need to have a fair and balanced approach to the revenue tools. And what I said last week was I was concerned that that didn't appear to be the case with the list of priorities that the Board of Trade came out with. That doesn't mean that we're closing our mind to other ideas that might come forward. What it does mean, though, is that we want to make sure that the financing of this massive, necessary investment is done in a fair way.
Reporter: So are you saying, though, that those revenue tools are completely unacceptable, or they could be acceptable if coupled with things that made them more fair?
Horwath: What I'm saying is that I'm going to keep an open mind in terms of what comes forward, but I do not want to see more financial burden on households that are already having a very difficult time making ends meet.
Reporter: So would you be in favour of earmarking, dedicating different types of taxes, raised through corporate taxes or whatever, to transit in the GTA?
Horwath: I've made it clear, I think, in my speech today that I understand the need to kind of, to focus the funding and to earmark it; I guess the issue becomes, which of the tools are the ones that we're going to use to earmark and finance. But I would say that, yes.
Reporter: So is your particular objection to taxation in general or to particular taxes that are more regressive than others?
Horwath: Well, of course New Democrats are not supportive of regressive taxation in the first place, and as I mentioned in my speech, we've seen over the last number of years, the revenue integrity of this province be reduced through decisions that were made in terms of taxation. And so we need to be very, very careful going forward, about who's picking up the burden and how that burden is shared. And what we've seen is a disproportionate burden on everyday families that has created quite a difficult situation in combination with the recession; folks are having a hard time. I mean, that's the bottom line. It may not be the case for everyone here in downtown Toronto, but it certainly is the case of a lot of people in the GTA, that they struggle to make ends meet. We've seen on the opposite side, a reduction in all kinds of taxes for the business side of the equation, and we think that that's reduced the capacity of this province to get some things done. So we have to find a balanced way to move forward, not only as a province in the overall economy, but in terms of this transit funding.
Reporter: Let's go down the list here: you don't like tolls, right?
Horwath: What I'm saying is, I'm gonna keep an open mind-
Reporter: But you've said that in the past, you don't like tolls.
Horwath: We've said that road tolls are not something that we're supportive of. But what I am saying, though, is that there's a lot of ideas that are still out there, there's a lot of conversations gonna happen, a lot of debate and discussion. I'm gonna keep an open mind, but I don't wanna see a heavy impact of financial burden on everyday households.
Reporter: What about a hotel tax?
Horwath: Again, I'm not gonna go through a whole laundry list today. I think what I'm telling you today is that I am keeping an open mind in terms of the options out there. But what I don't want to see is a big burden on everyday families who are already struggling in today's economy.
Reporter: What do you want to see?
Horwath: Again, I'm not unveiling my plan today, but we are in consultation ourselves; the New Democrats have been for the last couple of months. We are waiting for the Metrolinx paper to come out, the report to come out in June. We also know that City Hall is having a serious discussions about this as well. I do believe that the province and the federal government have to pony up when it comes to transit funding. But I certainly know that that's not the be-all and end-all of the solution. That has to be a part of the solution, though, they can't be left off the hook. And so at this point in time, what I'm saying is, New Democrats are keeping an open mind, but we don't want to see a burden, an unnecessary burden or an unbearable burden, put on the backs of everyday folks.
Reporter: What are you asking for then, I don't get it, I mean everything's gonna be a burden regardless of what it is, be it a tax, a provincial tax or income tax or something, it's all gonna hit us.
Horwath: That's why we have to look carefully at the report that Metrolinx brings forward, and we have to have that debate with citizens, because I really do believe, and I said this in the speech, but I've been around politics long enough to know that on big projects like this, on massive changes like this, if people are not behind it, you create such a backlash and such an ugly situation that you can't move forward, and that's the last thing we want, is to gridlock the debate, and I fear that that's what may happen.
Reporter: What's your priority for -
ONDP press secretary Marion Nader: This is the last question.
Reporter: What's your priority for transit in Toronto? You've said that you've travelled around the TTC, you've been in the city for a while as the leader, what do you think is the highest priority project?
Horwath: I mean, I think it's those neighbourhoods in the outskirts of this city that are not receiving the kinds of transit that they need. I mean, when I did my tour, if you will, for two days riding the transit system, I ran into a man who had three kids with him - one in a snuggly, two toddlers - and he literally spent seven hours a day on transit. Because he had to go in one direction to take his youngest child to daycare, and then he had to go in the other direction to take his other child to preschool, to EC (early childhood). And then he had to go back to the centre for work. And so this guy was on three and a half hours in the morning and three and a half hours in the evening, just using transit to deal with his daily needs. That's - I mean, that's unacceptable.
Reporter: So you would prioritize suburban transit over a downtown relief line?
Horwath: Well, I mean I think that both of those things are important, I see what's happening in terms...
Reporter: But you would prioritize it, though.
Horwath: I think what is important is that there are needs everywhere. We see what's happening with the condo boom that's happening downtown, we know that there's difficulties in terms of the congestion right in the downtown in the capacity of the current infrastructure to meet the needs of the inner city. But we have to look at, I think, both sides of the equation. I think it's a mug's game to try to divide this city in terms of what's more important and who needs transit more. I think, the point is, that everybody needs transit and that we have to address all of these concerns, which is why I've been giving credit to the Board of Trade and others, who have been raising the importance of this issue, because it's one that has to be dealt with. Both for those who are congested and can't get their streetcar at a reasonable time or in a reasonable wait time in the downtown and those in the outskirts who are needing to have a better system.
Reporter: What do you say to-
Nader: Thank you very much.