There are those who would argue that almost 11 months after Dalton McGuinty's Liberals tossed Ontario's dreaded Conservatives out of their government offices, there's been blessed little in the way of tangible improvement in the city's relationship with the province.
"If you were to put the premier on television with the picture blurred and the sound distorted, you wouldn't know if it was (former Tory boss) Mike Harris or McGuinty doing the talking," said Councillor Brian Ashton, an unhappy Toronto delegate at this week's annual convention of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.
The source of Ashton's displeasure (and that of six other city politicians who trekked to Ottawa for the AMO get-together) was the so-called protocol that McGuinty presented to the conference Monday, formally designating the association of more than 400 disparate municipalities as the organization Queen's Park will negotiate with when it comes to matters of interest to all cities, towns, villages and hamlets.
Although Mayor David Miller strenuously objected to the wording of the "secret" pact and asked for changes to be made before it was signed, his entreaties were ignored by the premier's office. The net result is that the AMO is now the agency with which the provincial government will "consult".
So much for the "new deal" Miller was presumed to be getting from Queen's Park. You know, the one he and McGuinty were supposedly working on to give Toronto its own seat at the bargaining table whenever important funding decisions are made.
"To have us negotiate through a filter of 400 other municipalities frankly guts the new deal," said Councillor Howard Moscoe, who headed Toronto's AMO delegation. He scoffed at after-the-fact assurances from McGuinty and Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen that there's nothing in the protocol to stop the city from making its own case to the province.
"To have the provincial government using the AMO as leverage against the city is completely unacceptable to the citizens of Toronto," added Ashton. "It all comes down to power and money, and the province doesn't seem prepared to give up either. If this extremely paternalistic attitude continues, Toronto's going to be in trouble."
The first measure of how much trouble the city is in as council heads into its 2005 budget preparations will be the formula Queen's Park uses to distribute the first instalment of gas tax money to municipalities for spending on public transit. A payout based on existing transit ridership would provide Toronto with the biggest share of much-needed cash, whereas other population centres would do better if the money was paid on a per capita basis.
"You could feel real friction starting to grow behind the scenes in Ottawa," Ashton said of the reaction he heard to Toronto's "new deal demands" from AMO delegates representing suburban municipalities outside the GTA. "Some people were saying, 'It sounds just like the (former mayor) Mel (Lastman) years."
Indeed, Liberal insiders insist it's government concerns about being seen as "too Toronto-friendly" that are at the heart of the protocol receiving such bad reviews from local politicians. And it was seen as a perfect tool for Gerretsen, the former mayor of Kingston and a past president of AMO.
"To formalize a situation where Toronto is a power unto itself in its relationship with Queen's Park would be perceived as rewarding the city for all its whining," said one source who attended the Ottawa conference. He maintained McGuinty was "just furious with Miller" for reacting so negatively to the protocol, adding that the government has assigned Scarborough Centre MPP Brad Duguid (who also happens to be Gerretsen's parliamentary secretary) to serve as "cabinet's attack dog to go after the mayor" on issues related to the province's relationship with the city.
This, of course, is much the same tactic the Harris Tories used in a bid to muzzle Lastman during his heyday. The strategy did little to further the careers of former MPPs like Chris Stockwell and Steve Gilchrist who, like 17 other Toronto Conservative politicians, were capsized in the "Perfect Storm" of last October's provincial election.
But such is the partisan dislike for NDPer Miller among some members of McGuinty's cabinet (reportedly including Health Minister and Toronto Centre MPP George Smitherman) that recent history is willingly being ignored.
"It's a very dangerous game they're playing," said Ashton, who maintained the AMO conference also featured considerable grumbling about the McGuinty government's first year in office and what may be ahead for the Grits if - as is now widely expected - John Tory wins the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party next month.
As it turned out, the former cable executive who finished a strong second to Miller in Toronto's mayoral election last November made a visit of his own on Tuesday to the AMO conference "to speak with municipal leaders about strengthening the province's communities and rebuilding support" for the Conservative party, with an eye on winning the next provincial election.
"I think he's just found himself a very good wedge issue into Toronto's provincial political scene," Ashton said of Tory and the Grits' controversial municipal protocol. "I know this isn't the type of new deal Tory supports. All we've gotten from the Liberals so far is a new health tax and a lot of broken promises. What Toronto really needs are new partners, and we'll shop in any political store where we can find them."