Candidates are scrambling to prepare for a provincial by-election on Feb. 4 in Toronto Centre, one of the city's two downtown ridings. Premier Dalton McGuinty called the election after Liberal MPP George Smitherman resigned on Jan. 4 to run in Toronto's mayoral race.
The main candidates are Glen Murray (Liberal), an openly gay ex-mayor of Winnipeg who was chosen to replace Smitherman, Cathy Crowe (NDP), nurse and social activist, Pamela Taylor (PC), lawyer and businesswoman, and Stefan Premdas (Green Party), an employment councilor who is also openly gay.
Toronto Centre roughly borders Queen’s Park and Yonge St. to the west, the waterfront to the south, Don Valley to the east, and Mount Pleasant cemetery to the north. The riding’s neighbourhoods are economically disparate and include many immigrants.
The riding has voted Liberal since its creation in 1999. According to Nelson Wiseman, political science professor at U of T, the trend is likely to continue. Murray, however, has only lived in Toronto Centre for five years, which has raised some eyebrows about his ability to represent the riding. “It is quite something for a mayor of another city to show up, and, in five or six years, run for a seat here,” said Wiseman.
“I represent a constituency where I’m typical,” Murray answered in response to this criticism. "Half the people who live in Toronto Centre weren’t born in this country. I bring a very rich experience from different communities, and I bring a lot of national leadership.”
The key debate issues are the Liberal government’s record, the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), LGBT rights, and community development.
Taylor hopes to capitalize on Murray's unfamiliarity and by attacking the Liberals' tax policy. Graham White, professor of political science at U of T, points out that the Conservatives “surely have no expectation of winning, but want to see if they can bolster their vote substantially by hammering the HST.” Crowe also voices concerns about the HST's effects on small businesses.
All candidates said they want to improve post-secondary education and transit.
Taylor proposes a more efficient TTC with more effective use of funds. She believes that increasing funds is secondary. Crowe gave few details about public transit in her interview with the newspaper. She did say, however, that the provincial government needs to increase its TTC funding. Murray hopes to integrate better transit technology to increase efficiency and improve planning to connect more neighborhoods. He says that the economic benefits of such measures would enlarge the tax base and provide more money to fund public transit in the future. Premdas emphasizes the need for more bike lanes, more car-free zones, and extensive TTC routes, all of which will require more funds.
As far as post-secondary education is concerned, Taylor says she wants to improve the economy to create jobs for graduates. She also wants to bring students into discussions about making college and university more accessible. Murray suggests increasing financial assistance for those going to school. He says that the provincial government and the non-profit sector need to take an active role in funding. Crowe calls for a tuition freeze. Premdas says that the government should create more grants and improve access to student loans. When the newspaper asked if tuition fees should be frozen, he replied with an emphatic "heck yes!"
The final debate will happen on January 31 at the Cabbagetown Youth Centre. Advanced polling took place on January 23, attracting high-profile Liberals like Bob Rae and Smitherman, who voted for Murray.
Voter turnout will likely be low, which, according to some, will work to the Liberals' advantage. "I don't sense that there's any huge set of issues that people are eager to punish or reward the McGuinty Government for," said White. "Nobody seems really stirred up about provincial politics. All this points to a Liberal win."
Wiseman agrees: Murray will probably prevail. The new MPP will then have only 20 months to get ready for Ontario’s general election in the fall of 2011, which will be the true test of the Liberal government’s strength.