Seven Long Years: How will David Miller be remembered?

Seven Long Years: How will David Miller be remembered?

As a kvetchy, largely ineffective do-gooder ultimately undone by the unionists who helped elect him

(Image: by Frank Gunn/CP; photo-illustration by Gluekit) 

Unless Joe Pantalone, the unrepentant David Miller acolyte, mounts a surprise surge, our next mayor will arrive at city hall on an explicit promise to do things profoundly differently than his (or her) predecessor. George Smitherman promises to do things differently with a degree of sobriety; Rob Ford promises to do things differently with a flame-thrower and a manic glint in his eye.

It’s timely, then, to recall Miller’s own rise to power. He was elected because he thought it was a bad idea to build a bridge across the western gap of Toronto Harbour, which is only 121 metres wide. Remember the fixed link? It was a burning issue in 2003. It was incompatible with a revitalized waterfront, Miller insisted. Much smarter would be to pressure Ottawa to deliver a rail link to Pearson airport.

Yes, well, seven years later, we still need rubber tires to get to Pearson, and the waterfront, despite some progress, still eagerly awaits revitalization. Porter Airlines hurtles dozens of quiet turboprops skyward every day from a gleaming new terminal that smells like free cappuccino. The Port Authority is planning for more than 200 flights a day in the coming years. It will start construction on a pedestrian tunnel in early 2011—some people have sarcastically suggested naming it after Miller. An Ipsos Reid poll conducted for the Port Authority in the spring found a majority of Torontonians now support a fixed link. Sixty-three per cent are in favour of an airport on the Island, and just 12 per cent are opposed to it. And why not? It’s one of the few things left in this town that works like it’s supposed to.

In any case, little airports, short bridges and other ideological indulgences are a thousand miles off the radar this election season. We don’t just have bigger fish to fry; the kitchen’s on fire. And while Miller didn’t light the match, he didn’t pick up a hose, either. Since Miller came into office, Toronto has drifted far from the ideals its citizens hold dear: cleanliness, efficiency, competent governance, a degree of fiscal solvency, traffic that isn’t as bad as L.A.’s. Only the most determined utopians, innumerates and CUPE members still think this is a model of a high-functioning city. Toronto’s net debt is more than a billion dollars greater than it was in 2004. The 2010 operating budget projects 43 per cent more spending than in 2003, much of it on salaries and benefits to Miller’s purported friends in the unions. (Who, in 2003, would have predicted Miller would ultimately be undone by a garbage strike?) Toronto suffers from an alarming structural deficit and can only scrape by with emergency budget cuts, tax hikes and user fee increases for so long before no one wants to live here anymore.

That said, Miller’s tenure was not a calamity of historic proportions, as some Torontonians believe. For starters, he’s not Mel Lastman. He never made jokes about Kenyans and cannibalism or threatened to kill a reporter. Miller is a decent gent with honourable intentions. And he’s indisputably clean: he was a key figure in busting open the MFP computer leasing scandal. He championed the municipal lobbyist registry, which was launched in 2008. He leaves city hall with an integrity commissioner and an ombudsman it didn’t have before. Seven years ago, municipal politics emitted a strong whiff of corruption and ineptitude. The whiff of corruption, at least, is gone.

Other than that, what will he leave behind? Mostly incremental improvements and works-in-progress. Miller often boasts of environmental accomplishments, such as recycling and green roofs, but we keep learning that many of the dirty diapers and fish heads we separate from our used tinfoil wind up in landfills. When Miller announced his retirement, a Star editorial listed the five-cent tax on plastic bags as one of his accomplishments, but that’s hardly a legacy. The Pan Am Games? Maybe. We’re spending $1.4 billion in the hopes that the games will improve our city, but the Pan Ams aren’t exactly the Olympics; previous hosts include Winnipeg, Indian­apolis and Santo Domingo. It almost seems unbecoming of the GTA, which has a population of five million, to care about such an inconsequential event, successful or not.

Many people think Miller’s legacy will be Transit City, and that’s plausible enough: seven new light rail transit lines—including a 33-kilometre, partially underground route from Pearson airport to Kennedy station along Eglinton Avenue—would be a game changer.

Let’s say, 25 years hence, Torontonians have forgotten the TTC did not improve under Miller’s watch. Let’s say bus drivers no longer stop for coffee along their routes and streetcars no longer travel in threes, separated by 40-minute stretches of empty, howling winter. Let’s say we board transit with smart cards and have forgotten we were the last place in the developed world where you had to wake someone up to pay cash for subway tokens. And let’s say the city figures out how to build light rail lines better than it built the new streetcar line along St. Clair West, which really was a calamity of historic proportions. (Best line from the report on that five-year, $106-million debacle: “Construction commenced in the absence of a comprehensive design of what was to be constructed.”) If any of the LRT lines do get built, we’ll lift a drink to David Miller.

But that’s a huge, ghoulish “if.” The hell of being Toronto’s presumptive Transit Mayor is that your legacy can be undone with the stroke of a pen—as Queen’s Park demonstrated in March by lopping off $4 bil­lion from Transit City and other transit projects. Mere months after city hall took out subway ads lavishing thanks on Dalton McGuinty for his beneficence, it took out ads begging him to reconsider the cuts. Humiliating is what it was.

And yet it’s hard to sympathize: how much money has Miller flushed down the john, after all? In 2006, his council awarded a $710-million subway car contract to Bombardier without putting it out to tender. Jaws dropped, but Miller was unapologetic. The cars simply had to be built in Thunder Bay. “I’m utterly shocked as a proud Canadian that there’s even an argument about this,” he said, adding that if the work went abroad, the federal and provincial governments would never give us another nickel for public transit. Whatever the potential savings might have been—the German supplier Siemens said it could do the job for at least $100 million less—they’re gone forever, and Vancouverites riding to and from the airport in their brand new Korean-built trains (funded in part by the feds) could be forgiven for smirking in Toronto’s general direction.

“It’s time to stop yelling at Ottawa and Queen’s Park about our problems,” Miller wrote at the beginning of his first mayoral election campaign. “Instead, we need to work with the other levels of government to ensure we have safe, clean, vibrant cities.” Seven years later, it couldn’t be much clearer we’re on our own. Politicians see little downside in screwing Toronto. There’s a choice at hand: the next mayor can keep muddling along, begging Queen’s Park and Ottawa for the nice things other cities have, and kicking the dirt when he doesn’t get them. Or he can make those things happen, even if it means job losses, labour unrest and user fees. It’ll hurt. But it hurts now.

I suspect that David Miller will be remembered as the last of his kind: a benevolent caretaker at a time when we needed a revolu­tionary. We could have done a lot worse. But we can’t afford another mayor like him.