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Q&A: John Tory said we could have nice things without paying higher taxes

Then he got re-elected and promptly broke his promise. What gives?

By Malcolm Johnston| Photography by Erin Leydon
Q&A: John Tory said we could have nice things without paying higher taxes

You’ve been elected twice now promising not to increase taxes beyond the rate of inflation. But in December, you did just that, increasing the City Building Fund via a special levy added to property tax bills, by roughly $45 a year for the average Torontonian in 2020 and $326 by 2025. What changed? The city finally developed its own 10-year housing plan and reached a comprehensive transit agreement with the province. The question became: how are we going to pay for these things?

With respect, you’ve known about Toronto’s financial problems and infrastructure needs for years. Why not announce your plans, or even your general line of thinking, before the election? With equal respect, I’d say we didn’t know we were going to do these things back then. Unlike a normal tax, the levy funds don’t go into the general coffers; they go directly to housing and transit.

Do you think you would have won if you’d said a tax increase was on the table during the campaign? I won’t engage in hypotheticals, but I do believe people have come to trust me to do the right thing. That might not always be consistent with what I said two weeks ago, two years ago or 10 years ago. Doing the right thing is doing the right thing.

Are you ruling out additional tax hikes? We’re looking at a vacant unit tax, less to raise revenue than to signal to people who own vacant units that if they’re going to keep those units out of the rental pool, they’ll need to pay.

The hostilities between you and Premier Ford seem to have subsided recently. What led to the détente? He made some important personnel changes. He had people around him who were pugnacious, always wanting to fight.

You’re referring to former chief of staff Dean French. What was he so salty about? I don’t know Dean well, and I won’t pin it on one person, but there was an attitude that suggested it was better to fight than to talk. I think they assumed I don’t like to fight. You know what? I don’t. I prefer collaborating. But I will fight. When I said I was going to canvas door-to-door against Mr. Ford’s threatened cuts, his office said, “Maybe we should sit down and talk about this.” Today, the relationship is much better. Mr. Ford and I text and talk frequently.

What’s his texting manner like? To the point. So is mine. When we were close to reaching an agreement on Mr. Ford’s transit proposal, the Ontario Line, we had frequent contact. Often, we’ll text just to arrange a call or a meeting.

Where and how often do you two meet? It depends. Recently we met on a Sunday in his office. Another time it was in his mother’s basement. He has a favourite restaurant called Perkins in Etobicoke, but if we go there, people say hello, which is lovely but not conducive to decision making.

Does Ford’s decision to slash council ever come up? Yes. When he informed me of his intentions, it was at 9:30 p.m. He called and said he would be announcing it in the morning. I got very angry—as angry as I get. Anyway, I’ve since told him that hopefully we won’t have another phone call like that one.

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You agreed to proceed with his Ontario Line despite the fact that city staff can’t assess the validity of the timeline or costs. Is this thing actually going to happen? They also didn’t say it was so ridiculous as to be impossible. The concept was deemed viable.

Even drilling under Leslieville? That sounds…complicated. Look, I’ve been clear that that is an outstanding matter. Right now, experts are taking soil samples and doing things that, yes, in some respects should have been done beforehand. But the top-line viability from the experts is what made us go forward.

The new-politician, new-transit-plan narrative has become tragically predictable: Miller, Stintz, Rob Ford, you, Doug Ford. Would you agree that transit planning in Toronto is broken? I don’t know if I’d use that word, but it certainly hasn’t happened the way it should have, starting with the fact that there hasn’t been the commitment from all three governments at a time. One of the reasons that I’m so heartened by the Ontario Line is that all three governments have signed on to it.

Historically there has been agreement by all three governments—but then somebody new inevitably comes in and scraps the plan. That’s true on a project-by-project basis; agreement on a comprehensive plan is unusual.

How does one keep the next premier from scrapping the Ontario Line and implementing a new version? I don’t know the answer to that question.

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Your affordable housing plan will provide 40,000 new units. Why has it taken so long for Toronto to confront this problem in a realistic way? I guess the obvious answer is that no one treated it as a priority. In 2009, council passed a housing plan with a target of 1,000 affordable housing units per year. Between then and 2015, they never even came close.

You’ve been in this job for five years now. What’s your favourite part of the routine? The hour I spend by myself in my office, between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. It’s quiet. There’s a guy who skates on the Nathan Phillips Square rink every morning, so while I’m reading the news or a report or speech, I’ll look out and watch him. He’s really good.

When does your day end? I work until 9 p.m. or so, then I have a couple of hours at home to spend time with my wife, Barbara, then I go to sleep at 11:30 p.m.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of quality spousal time! She works with the people who manage my schedule to set aside some evenings. That allows us to see our friends or attend a grandchild’s Christmas concert. We make it work.

When we last talked, a few years ago, she had agreed to two terms. Is she holding fast to that edict? She was adamant at the beginning. We haven’t yet sat down to discuss another term, because we’re only one year into a four-year term, but I’d say she doesn’t look at that rule as being written in blood any more. I think a lot of it will depend on whether the projects I’ve implemented—transit or housing or others—are in danger of being obstructed. That would prompt me to be much more serious about staying on.

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When all is said and done, what do you imagine your legacy will be? Toronto is booming. I want to be remembered for helping to successfully grow it, and by that I mean doing it in a way that makes the city more equitable for all.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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