Local Progressive Conservative MPPs under pressure to stand up for Toronto against deep funding cuts say they’re standing behind Premier Doug Ford, even if a couple don’t want to talk about it.
The Star emailed questions to the 10 Toronto Tory MPPs other than Ford, including whether they are uncomfortable with any of their government’s cuts pegged by the city manager at $178 million this year for public health, transit maintenance, child-care spaces for low-income parents and more.
Mayor John Tory, city councillors and some of their constituents are urging them to convince Ford and his cabinet to rescind the budget cuts, including one that hits Toronto harder than other cities, and sit down with municipalities to explore ways the province can save money and cut the deficit.
Ford’s office quickly let the Star know the MPPs would respond with a joint statement, which said: “Our government is protecting what matters most for Toronto families — like health care and education — by balancing the budget in a reasonable and responsible manner . . .
“While our government protects what matters — like health care and education — and cleans up an inherited fiscal mess, we are asking our municipal partners to work alongside us to find efficiencies.”
It repeated Ford statements about wasteful city spending and concluded: “We fight each and every day for the people of Toronto and we want to work with the City of Toronto as a partner,” and the MPPs welcome “any opportunity” to discuss the issues in greater detail with the city.
Six of them spoke to the Star, at least briefly, when approached after question period. Two, Stan Cho (Willowdale) and Christine Hogarth (Etobicoke-Lakeshore), agreed to longer phone interviews about the downloading and the pressure being put on them to oppose it.
But Raymond Cho, a former longtime Toronto city councillor and, as minister for seniors and accessibility the most senior local PC MPP next to Ford himself, refused comment when approached by a Star reporter before bolting into a private PC backroom.
Several subsequent requests for an interview with Cho went unanswered.
Kinga Surma (Etobicoke Centre) also refused to stop, picking up her pace and striding quickly into a private room when a Star reporter identified himself and asked to speak about the budget cuts.
Christina Mitas (Scarborough Centre) is on maternity leave. Her office declined an interview request, pointing the Star to the joint statement.
Hogarth said: “Being a leader is about making tough decisions. (Ford) is fully supported by his caucus — we are a team and sometimes the tough decisions are not the most popular ones but they’re going to be sustainable ones that ensure we have a prosperous province in the future.”
Ford has attacked Tory personally in recent statements, saying “Instead of looking out for the taxpayer, the City of Toronto has let waste fester,” and “If John Tory spent as much time going through the city’s finances as he does worrying about the colour of the Toronto sign, he would be able to find some efficiencies and deliver some value for taxpayers’ dollars.”
But both Hogarth and Stan Cho stressed that they aren’t fighting the popular mayor.
“He is a good mayor and he runs a tight ship,” Hogarth told the Star. “So we have to find some efficiencies.” Asked about her government’s statements about wasteful Toronto spending, Hogarth said Tory “is only one vote at council” and noted some councillors want above-inflation tax hikes.
Stan Cho said: “I have great respect for the mayor and for the premier. Very frankly this is not political for me. This is about getting the system right, it’s about righting the financial ship.”
When asked Wednesday about his message for Raymond Cho and his colleagues, Tory said he agrees Ontario must be kept “strong” economically — but not on the backs of Toronto’s most vulnerable residents.
“These cuts are ill-advised, they were the subject of no discussion with us and perhaps we’re better to start over again,” with talks on cost-cutting, Tory said. “Raymond, you can make that happen.”
The mayor, a former leader of the Ontario PC party, said more than one Toronto PC MPP has privately told him they are not comfortable with either the cuts or the way they were imposed. He declined to name them, saying the conversations were private.
Tory ratcheted up pressure Saturday with letters to the PC Toronto caucus telling each member how many subsidized child spaces in their riding they have imperilled. Residents look to them for leadership in reversing these “unilateral, retroactive acts,” Tory wrote, “especially because no one sought or received a mandate in the election to cut child care.”
MPPs are also hearing from their constituents, directly and via left-leaning group Progress Toronto which has an online tool that lets people input their postal code and send a customized message about public health cuts to politicians including Ford and their local councillor.
“Everyone knows this constituent is opposed” to the cuts, said Progress Toronto’s Michal Hay, adding more than 8,600 people have sent messages to MPPs from different parties.
Her group is also doing robocalls targeted at residents of the 11 Toronto PC ridings, allowing them to be patched through to their MPPs’ office. About 2,500 people have done so, Hay said.
“MPPs are most persuaded by the people they represent and we’re trying to make it easier for people to make that contact with their politicians,” she said, noting Ford government reversals on funding for autism treatments and protections for the Green Belt against development.
“It might not happen instantly but we think the more people that they hear from, the more likely it is they’ll at least express internally that at a Conservative caucus meeting so that they start to change their tune.”
Several MPPs shrugged off the pressure campaign.
“The unions are organizing phone banks and demonstrations in front of the (constituency) offices,” said Aris Babikian (Scarborough-Agincourt). “But other than that, which I think they are a very small minority . . . on the contrary people are quite happy with what we’re doing and they want us to continue.”
MPP Roman Baber (York Centre) said he has “heard from a number of constituents over the last couple of days and appreciate everyone reaching out.
“Our government inherited a colossal mess from the former Liberal government,” he added.
Hogarth, who worked at city hall as executive assistant to John Campbell when he was a city councillor, told the Star that constituent opposition to the cuts hasn’t been “extraordinary.”
“You’re never going to make 100 per cent of the population happy — that’s just part of politics. But we were elected as a team to get our fiscal house in order and what we need to do is build a sustainable and prosperous Ontario for future generations.”
Asked why new funding formulas for public health funding hits Toronto harder than other municipalities, Hogarth said: “I believe we need . . .” and paused mid-sentence, before saying her government urges Toronto to “set more responsible priorities by working with us to ensure that the vital public health programs — and that includes vaccinations and school nutrition — continue to be properly funded.”
Asked where Toronto can find funds to offset the big cuts, she gave as an example recreation centres in some gentrifying areas that offer free programs to all including more prosperous residents.
“If you make $100,000 per year, maybe you can pay for your own yoga class.”
Stan Cho said he is happy to speak to concerned constituents and tell them, among other things, Toronto is incorrect alleging Ford government child-care cuts and policy changes will cost Toronto $84.8 million this year and jeopardize 6,166 subsidized daycare spaces for low-income parents.
“There’s no truth to saying there’s going to be 6,000 child care spots closed. I’d like to avoid politicking,” he said.
When the Star noted it was city staff, not politicians, who calculated the figure, the MPP said: “We’ve only asked them to cut administrative costs. The city has their budget. They don’t have to cut breakfasts for needy kids, they don’t have to talk about doing all these things I’ve heard on the news.”
John Parker knows the kind of pressure local MPPs are feeling. He was a Toronto member of Mike Harris’s caucus from 1995 to 1999 when that PC government downloaded some costs to municipalities, and later a Toronto city councillor from 2006 to 2014.
“It was extremely intense and it wasn’t easy to handle at all,” Parker said of opposition to the downloading, adding that he and his colleagues knew it was “desperate times” for provincial finances and they were elected with Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution” outlining changes to come.
“If as a government you can satisfy yourself that your motives are pure and you’ve looked at all options and you’re comfortable with the approach you’re taking, then you face up to the opposition,” he said.
Asked about consultation at the time with municipalities, Parker noted he wasn’t at the cabinet table but said: “I believe there was a very businesslike approach, government to government, in identifying problems and trying to develop solutions.”
What the Toronto PC MPPs who spoke to the Star had to say:
- Robin Martin (Eglinton-Lawrence): “I haven’t heard recently,” said Martin when asked if her office had received any complaints about the cuts. “I’d rather do this later.” Her office later declined an interview, pointing the Star to the MPPs’ joint statement.
- Vincent Ke (Don Valley North): “It’s not cuts. It’s provincially we have to do the job. I think the municipality has to take their responsibilities. We do our job and they should do theirs.”
- Stan Cho (Willowdale): “This is an open dialogue we’re having with the city. The mayor’s welcome to contact me any time to have a conversation. I’m happy speak with him.”
- Vijay Thanigasalam (Scarborough-Rouge Park): The government “made choices to protect what matters most. My constituents in Scarborough, they are excited about the child care (tax credit in the budget), the seniors’ dental care (for low-income elderly Ontarians) and now we have a three-stop subway coming into Scarborough.”
- Aris Babikian (Scarborough-Agincourt): People “are quite happy with the promise of the extension of the subway . . . that has left a positive effect. People are very positive, they are very happy with what we are bringing. They come and they encourage us to continue the same way,” said Babikian, blaming labour unions for stirring up opposition to the cuts.
“Many of the people without even being informed properly, they call and they start arguing, or not arguing, actually, discussing the issue. When I explain to them the real picture they have a quite different reaction.”
- Roman Baber (York Centre) said he has “heard from a number of constituents over the last couple of days and appreciate everyone reaching out.”
“Between the Toronto public health cuts that amount to at most, according to the city, $64 million a year and the child care subsidy cuts, which at most amount to about $37 million a year, we’re talking about less than $100 million all together . . . ” he said.
“Surely at a time when we’re all looking to tighten up a little bit we can count on our municipal partners to come up with three-quarters of a per cent to help get our province back on track. The sky isn’t falling.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie