Archives for category: Queen’s Park

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa was on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Monday, talking about the spat with Ottawa on funding for the Big Move transit plan. On one side, Ontario – through Metrolinx – has raised the idea of hiking the HST in the GTA to pay for transit expansion. On the other side is the federal government and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s letter to Sousa, which basically says you can’t have different HST rates across regions in Ontario. Sousa had a great opportunity to define the issue, but his approach was the wrong one.

Flaherty’s letter was simply an opportunistic political message (“We did not lower the GST to have it taken away from Ontarians by the Wynne government with a news sales tax hike.”) meant to put the Ontario government on the back foot. Sousa’s response – as manifested during this radio interview and elsewhere – was to engage in the debate on Flaherty’s terms and avoid talking about the bigger imperative: making sure the public understands that taxes are how we’re going to pay for badly-needed transit expansion.

Charles Sousa (Image: National Post)

In taking Flaherty’s bait, Sousa’s strategy seemed to be made up of two key messages:

1. Backing away from Metrolinx’s recommendations and saying “we didn’t ask to raise the HST,” or “That’s not what we’re suggesting,” over and over. This is an understandable minor message, but one that – as it was constantly repeated – started to take on the tenor of a recreational athlete complaining to a referee.  Maybe he was worried about how Ontarians were feeling after media coverage of a list of possible “non-tax revenues” generated by Ontario bureaucrats.

2. Avoiding any mention of transit and instead promoting partnership between levels of government, getting everyone at the table – Flaherty in particular – and having a conversation about making the lives of Ontarians better. In fact, Sousa did not once mention the word “transit” and only made one passing reference to the Big Move. Instead, he threw out the words “gridlock” and “competitiveness” and talked relentlessly about “capital infrastructure”. He sounded less like a smart guy trying to explain to a mostly liberal and urban radio audience why we need to consider all possible sources of revenue for transit, and more like a typical politician regurgitating his talking points. He even used the term “going forward”.

I was left with the impression that Ontario’s finance minister was more interested in making nice with Jim Flaherty (low odds on that succeeding) than he was in reinforcing the idea that we need to find a way of paying for transit. Too bad Sousa missed the opportunity to more clearly explain what he was asking for, and what benefits citizens would get in return.

Sure, getting voters to understand and engage on taxes for better transit and less gridlock is not an easy task. It carries political risks, but the alternative path – shying away from any mention of taxes and benefits and letting growth overwhelm us – is the same path to nowhere we’ve been on for decades. And isn’t that what Kathleen Wynne has been saying for months?

Advertisements

The discussion on transit in the GTA has moved past the “what to do” stage and is now in the “how to pay for it” stage. And that’s where it should be.

So why are public officials like Karen Stintz, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Glen Murray not thinking about how it looks when they try to reopen the transit agreement signed last year? Did they not consider how citizens might perceive it when yet another politician tries to revisit a transit deal (Sheppard East, Finch West, the Eglinton Crosstown and replacing the Scarborough LRT) that the region has been waiting decades to see?  I can just imagine the thousands of people, who upon opening the paper in the morning and reading the headlines, saying “Jesus! Enough already! Get on with it!”

Image: Ontario Government Archives

From a political communications perspective, the discussion over transit needs to have a rational and human element to it. This means anyone who advocates for further study, revisions or new ideas needs to explain very clearly why this would be of tangible and practical benefit for transit users and why we should wait even further.

In the case of Stintz and De Baeremaeker, we are wondering why they would be motivated to agitate for a subway to replace the Scarborough LRT? As the Grid’s Ed Keenan wrote in taking apart Stintz and De Baeremaeker’s suggestion, they have ignored the fact that a transit system should primarily serve its users; convenience of service is therefore a key consideration – not, as Keenan points out, the type of technology used.  For example, if a donkey and covered cart pulled up at a Queen streetcar stop and got me to my destination faster than the streetcar, then my needs have been met.

In the case of Glen Murray, he seemed to be thinking aloud about revisiting the entire transit plan. Thankfully for us, he had the poor communications judgement to do it on the same day as the provincial budget – when the government is really only focused on one story – thus pissing off the Premier and forcing Murray to climb down.

Both these cases should be a warning sign to any public official who wants to tinker with the transit deal. Whether for political points, a higher profile, more media coverage or other reason, anyone who decides to indulge themselves by suggesting fundamental changes to the transit plan will be judged harshly.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Rob Ford.

Robert Prichard — Image: Toronto Star

You want to know why so many people don’t trust politicians and the political class? Because of cases like Robert Prichard.

Since July of last year, Mr. Prichard, who is the Chair of GTA regional transit agency Metrolinx, has been a registered lobbyist for MGM in its efforts to build a casino in Toronto.

Prichard is also the Chair of Onyx, which is also fronting a casino proposal.

MGM hired Torys, the law firm Prichard chairs, to lobby relevant provincial ministries and agencies. He is not lobbying Toronto City Councillors, who will decide if there is to be a casino in the city. Prichard says there will be no lobbying if Toronto turns down a casino. Still, is this not a perceived conflict of interest?

Prichard went to Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, Mr. Justice Sidney Linden, who said there’s no problem if Prichard leaves the room when Metrolinx discusses the casino issue and its impact on public transit.

Here’s what I wish the Integrity Commissioner had said: “Sure, Bob – there is no law against this, but consider how this looks to Ontarians. Wouldn’t it be better to sit on the sidelines on the casino issue? Do you really have to do both? Surely it’s more important to build public confidence and trust than it is to wear your lobbyist hat and your Metrolinx hat?”

Later, Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray predictably said that Prichard did the right thing by going to the Integrity Commissioner. Sigh.

Prichard is a very qualified and experienced guy – former Dean of University of Toronto’s Law School, President of UofT and CEO of TorStar. But is it too much to ask that people choose between their private and professional interests and their duty to the province? Is it more important that Prichard have the opportunity to both head Metrolinx and lobby the province on a casino, or that Ontarians have unshakable trust in their public institutions and those who lead them? Is this a naïve and unrealistic perspective?

I don’t think so. The perception, for me, is that there is a conflict – and I don’t understand why this isn’t more apparent to Prichard, Linden and Murray.

Here’s the thing: this is all about trust. Most people aren’t going to trust someone who intuitively thinks that it’s acceptable to resolve this conflict simply by leaving the room when the word “casino” gets mentioned. Political and policy influence is a more complex and nuanced process than that.

In the end, this story confirms the widespread perception that public sector appointees, politicians and the circles around them are not really in it to make Ontario better – but to enrich themselves and protect their web of influence. The result is less trust in the people who appointed Prichard, less trust in the Integrity Commissioner and less trust in the political class.

That’s why the story was on the front page of the Globe and Mail, and that’s why this issue will further erode confidence in public oversight.

My mom is a retired teacher and fairly active in progressive politics. Over a recent dinner, we started talking about striking Ontario teachers, Bill 115 (the Ontario government’s bill sending the teachers back to work), and the fallout, including the issue of sick days. Mom said first that she couldn’t imagine not doing extracurricular activities, and she thought that banking sick days for a retirement payoffs was a thing of the past.  That’s an opinion held by quite a few people.

The issue, as it is popularly understood, is generally as follows: The teachers’ old collective agreement gave them annual sick days, which can be saved up over a career to a maximum of 200, and paid out upon retirement. An average lump sum for cashing out sick days over a career is over $40,000 (according to this CP story). UPDATE: This figure is disputed; teachers say it is less than that, and that not all teachers are even eligible for such a payout.

But what if the issue is more complex – or simpler – than that?

Last week, TVO’s The Agenda blog ran a great post on the sick days issue. The post suggests that the common understanding of the sick days issue may not be accurate or based on fact. It also suggests that the culprit for this may be “a colossal failure of communication on behalf of the government or on behalf of the union to its members.”

How the public – especially parents – perceives issues like this through the media and discussion with friends, families and fellow parents is critical to the communications strategies of the government, school boards and the teachers’ unions. And that strategy is critical to achieving their goals, whether it be cutting costs, successfully negotiating a collective agreement or preserving benefits.

Who could have thought that the perceptions among so many interests active in this debate (including the media) would be potentially under informed? Could the entire debate have been more focused to all involved, and possibly less contentious?

A good lesson for communicators here: frame the issue clearly, simply and honestly – based on facts.