Archives for posts with tag: Metrolinx

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?

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I hate the word “taxpayer”. Why? Because it puts the word tax front and center, as if our identity revolves around the fact that we pay tax – as opposed to, say, the fact that we consume public services like health care, pensions, roads, utilities, etc.

The discussion over how to fund the needed transit expansion for the GTA has me overjoyed for a variety of reasons. First, we’re having a discussion about transit. Second, it’s participatory; the discussion is relatively broad and it includes various levels of government, business and citizens’ groups.

And finally, it appears we are having an adult discussion about taxes. Although the vague phrase “revenue tools” has been used frequently,  I think that most people understand we are talking about taxes, full stop. Even if we’re all clear on what “revenue tools” means, I wish Premier Wynne and Metrolinx would stop using it.

Express Tax Route? (Image: Globe & Mail)

Road tolls are a tax. Parking fees are a tax. The other oft-mentioned solutions are dedicated sales and fuel taxes – which are both, of course, taxes.

What I like about this – no, what I love about this – is that citizens are being treated with respect and honesty. You want good transit? We need to raise money to pay for it, through taxes.  So, let’s talk about which taxes we can pay to get something that will increase the quality of life in the GTA.

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but I rejoice in the fact that all citizens – whether they want better transit or not – are clear in what they are debating. Isn’t transparency a great thing?

UPDATE: No, this is not an April Fool’s joke. Seriously.

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.