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Tonight's Toronto Mayoral Waterfront Debate

Tonight I attended "The Great Toronto Waterfront Debate" at the Harbourfront Community Centre. It was hosted by several community organizations including The Harbourfront Community Association. The moderator was former mayor David Crombie, and all five major mayoral candidates were there: Barbara Hall, Tom Jakobek, David Miller, John Nunziata, and John Tory.

The debate took place in a standing-room-only gymnasium, and John Nunziata mentioned that this looked like the largest crowd at any debate so far. The reason was obvious to me before I even heard a word. This community is fired up about the Toronto Island Airport expansion.

The form of the debate was similar to the first debate I attended back in June. Candidates were allowed a brief opening statement, followed by responses to questions from the floor. At the end, after about two hours, there were closing statements. This debate was slightly-less-well organized than the previous in that there was no set order of rotation for answering questions, and it seemed to depend more on who had their hand on the microphone. Also, apparently the candidates were given questions in advance by the community associations. I do suspect, however, that other people made their way into the line to ask non-screened questions.

Tomorrow, or as soon as I have time, I will be posting a summary of all questions and answers. I was scribbling away, trying to get down as much as I can. After that, I'll write a commentary on the results.

The major issue tonight was the airport. David Miller has taken a firm stand against the airport and is making it one of the lead pillars of his campaign. He has been running radio ads recently about this. On the other hand, all the other candidates support the current administration on the airport in one way or another.

Of course, the crowd was heavily anti-airport. People were angry, asking tough questions, and heckling... especially against Barbara Hall. There was also an element in the crowd in support of the airport. They all seemed to be CAW members fighting to save their jobs at the Bombardier deHavilland Downsview facility that would be making the planes for the new airline and expanded airport service. They asked a few pointed questions to David Miller and they heckled him whenever they got the chance.

I have already made my position on the airport expansion clear, in several articles. However, I was quite interested to hear one of the candidates offer an argument in favour. None of them really had the nerve to do it.

Barbara Hall's position is rather weak. She says that she supports the fixed link for "safety reasons", but is opposed to "expansion of the runways or the use of jets". A questioner pointed out that Transport Canada feels that the 3-minute ferry link is entirely safe. Furthermore, it is the fixed link that makes possible a ten-fold increase in airport traffic -- with or without "expansion of runways or the use of jets."

Hall never explained to the crowd why she would support an increase in expanded traffic at the airport. However, the same questioner mentioned above claimed that Hall was part of a Bombardier-CAW press release supporting the airport expansion because it would maintain jobs in Toronto. This seems to be true because she did not deny it ("I don't apologize for supporting jobs in a way that is not harmful"*) and because she attended a CAW "deHavilland Bombardier Fight Back" rally in favour of bringing jobs to Downsview by generating airplane sales through expanding the airport. The September 19, 2002 rally is described in a CAW video press release available on their website.

The bottom line on Hall is that she had made friends with both Bombardier and the CAW by supporting a plan to increase air traffic in and out of downtown, fueled by a $48 million subsidy disguised as settlement for a frivolous lawsuit brought by the Toronto Port Authority. This is discussed in greater detail in a great recent column by Michele Landsberg, that was being distributed at the debate tonight.

David Miller, on the other side, was very strong tonight. By standing up against the airport he presented himself as the only candidate with an aspirational vision for the City of Toronto. The best of it was in his opening and closing addresses.

He spoke about the once-in-a-lifetime chance we are faced with now, on the waterfront. The issue of the waterfront is about more than just downtown. "Our entire waterfront can be... a showcase for Canada and the world. 500 acres of parks, 500 acres of promenade, and 1,000 acres of a beautifully-designed new community. But you can't do it if you're expanding the island airport from 10 flights a day to 100 flights per day."

After effectively defeating some direct questions from the CAW boys, Miller had the following to say* in his closing address:

At City Hall, Jane Jacobs was shouted down. David Crombie was heard, and he said that he doesn't blame the workers because they are fighting for jobs, he doesn't blame the airline promoters because they are trying to make a business, but it is the job of the city councillors to protect the public interest.

Tonight, it was hard to stand up against the people here fighting for their jobs and their union. But, the public interest is for everybody. There are only so many opportunites to make a city great, and our opportunity is here.

This issue is not just for downtown voters. Anyone who will sell-out the downtown neighbourhood will sell-out any neighbourhood.

He had more to say, but between trying to write fast, and the standing ovation Miller was receiving, I wasn't able to get it all.

* -- Note, some quotes may not be exact since I couldn't write down every word. I feel that all quotes used here accurately reflect the intent of the speaker, as I remember it.

UPDATE, Sept 17: Toronto Star coverage of the debate

UPDATE, Sept 18: My summary of the debate is now online



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