At Rob Ford’s executive committee meeting last week, city councillors had a long (and long overdue) discussion about ways to pay for public transit expansion in Toronto. A staff report put a lot of options on the table: a one per cent city sales tax, a one per cent personal income tax, road tolls, fuel taxes, parking taxes, vehicle registration taxes…
So, which option, the mayor was asked, would he support? None of the above, he told the press. “There’s other options, and a P3’s the way to go,” he said. “I’m not going to implement a new tax or a new user fee.”
By “P3,” he meant “public-private partnership.” But, as the staff report made clear, such partnerships are just one method of building things, not a source of funding. It is as if, asked to name his favourite vegetable, Ford had answered, “Fork!”
Let me break down the terminology for you: A public-private partnership is a way of borrowing money from a private sector company that you also hire to build things. By definition, the government side of the partnership still involves paying the private company to build the infrastructure. And the government pays with tax dollars, which are, ultimately, the only real source of money the government has.
The episode underscored, yet again, the mayor and his brother’s fundamental financial illiteracy. (Another example: On the radio on the weekend, Doug Ford made an analogy comparing the city’s capital debt to household economics. “Do you go out and purchase a house… and not have the money?” he asked, apparently unaware of just how common mortgages are among homebuyers.)
What is interesting about Rob Ford’s parallel insistence that the city will build subways, the most expensive form of public transit, and that they will be built with no tax money or user fees, is that it crystalizes the foundational lie—the big one—on which the whole structure of his mayoral career is built.
Here’s the fantasy he sold the public: We can have everything we want, and it will cost nothing and inconvenience no one. It is a childish fiction, but once you look at it, you’ll realize it is the whole of Ford’s ideology, the premise of virtually every position he adopts.