Frank Touby: Pork barrel’s annual spring passion play


It is an annual ritual that former Liberal MP Dennis Mills condemned city residents to endure each year when the perennial backbencher talked the Jean Chretien government into remaking the failed Toronto Harbour Commission into a federal port authority, against all common sense, common decency and, as it turns out, the law of the land.

To add to his disgrace as a useless prime minister, Paul Martin failed to disband what has become the waterfront rogue known as the Toronto Port Authority, a money-losing agency that is by law supposed to earn its keep. It never has.

And, to add to his growing disgraces, Steve, the current PM, aided by his Transportation bozo Loose Larry Cannon, breathed entirely new life into the pork barrel agency with a consultant’s “study” that concluded all is well at TPA. So the agency that survives by funds from lawsuits against a formerly round-heeled city government, by avoiding paying for city services it uses, and from Paul Martin’s $35 million largesse, continues its seeming mission of passing out taxpayer money to contractors and consultants—the traditional role of a pork barrel.

The June 12 ritual was staged at the Royal York; a passion play set in a proscribed time period of not more than 90 minutes. It plays annually with virtually few changes. It’s called the Annual General Meeting of the Toronto Port Authority.

In attendance, beyond those employees and supplicants who have to be there, is an unappreciative audience of mainly Island and waterfront dwellers in various stages of outrage, fully committed to the demise of TPA and its noisy acolyte, Porter Airlines, which has as its logo another urban pest, the raccoon.

If the AGM were to go on all day, the dissenters would occupy the entire time asking questions TPA doesn’t want to answer and demanding it shut down and let the city run the laughably miniscule Port of Toronto.

So the TPA’s strategy is to take up as much time as possible with minutiae and diversions—and conducting it’s legitimate required AGM business—leaving only 45 minutes to endure the taunts and ridicule that accompany most questions.

First came 10 minutes of hearing from a microphone-bearing outsider acting as facilitator and laying out the ground rules. Then from the sole board member, Michele McCarthy, who is of course also the board chairwoman, we got lines like this: “Everything we do at the Toronto Port Authority is to protect and enhance the amazing resources and features of our waterfront for our children, and your children.” It was an inkling of the theme of TPA’s advertising and public relations campaign to come.

She then chugged along praising and listing the names and credentials of various superb-sounding persons associated with TPA. That all took a half hour off the clock.

Co-opting a Grade 6 class at Market Lane Public School on The Esplanade, whose presence also consumed some time, the six rows of seats directly in front of the TPA presenters were filled with the school kids front and centre and presented as TPA’s target audience to achieve local respectability, which its many local enemies say is totally lacking.

That also insulated rowdier members of the crowd who would otherwise be within spitting distance of the three main performers, plus it consumed precious minutes explaining how wonderful it was that the kids would be asked to participate in an essay writing contest aimed at somehow confusing TPA with waterfront revitalization.

TPA didn’t select kids from the Island school, no doubt because it would probably be difficult to find many who would participate in what the chronically money-losing federal agency hopes will whitewash TPA’s image and create a mythical constructive role for it as a contributor to waterfront excellence.

That initiative came as a result of top-dollar public relations consulting firm Pollara’s recommendations that the agency launch a PR campaign to have TPA viewed as part of waterfront regeneration, something a telephone poll of 500 Torontonians indicated the public has no idea is true. In fact, overwhelmingly, most don’t associate TPA with waterfront regeneration and seemingly most who reside on the waterfront swear it’s a lie, judging from their numbers raucously present during a workday in the hotel’s 18th-floor meeting room. TPA’s regular AGM business was taken care of during the 90 minutes.

It included a report that overall expenses declined while operating revenues rose in the year just ended. Left out of the literature package handed out beforehand was that the port authority lost a record amount of money—$10 mil— during that same period.

The show stopped while the children left their seats, went to the rear for a photo op, then departed for their school.

Heading up the show is charming and smart Lisa Raitt, CEO of the nuisance, who dodges with all the good humour at her command the insults that spurt from the assemblage. She dekes hecklers with the skill of a stand-up comic, tutored perhaps by her husband who is one at Second City. Raitt is well into the 6-digit annual pay range and from TPA’s standpoint is probably a bargain at whatever she is paid. Raitt is marvelously adept at deflecting criticism and spinning reasonable excuses for seemingly inexcusable activities. She also has her port authority technical and regulatory facts down pat.

But before the chuckling throng got to assault Raitt in this annual spring comedy, they were tossed a tasty morsel in the form of a suit from Polara who was there with a pointer and a slide show to set up a skit that TPA is a waterfront revitalizer that deserves credit for the features people who visit the waterfront enjoy, and that is misunderstood by most Torontonians, but not badly thought of. Generally, the audience enjoyed his show and laughed a lot throughout, tossing out barbs as the quixotic statistics were presented.

Then came the pièce de résistance Ms. Raitt herself.

She took the pointer and whisked through a slide show, ticking some more time off the clock as she addressed a list of complaints and their resolutions.

But the crowd would still get their full dose of Lisa Raitt because despite the various time-consuming features, there were still about 50 minutes left. And Raitt was ready.

She endured outbursts, allegations and affronts with élan. She avoided rolling her eyes as in past performances and her rare facial response to a prolonged assault was confined to raising her eyes to the skies and a making brief twist of mouth.

A question about the fate of the Music Garden on the waterfront was skillfully deflected. It had to do with the racket produced by Porter air and other aircraft landing, taxiing and taking off at the Island airport. It could end the summer music programs, especially if TPA’s dream of a busy airport occurs.

Raitt said if Porter, as widely predicted bites the dust, TPA will seek out other carriers to keep the airport in operation.

She said TPA has “no plans” to exercise an unwise easement the Chretien and Martin regimes granted in Little Norway Park which would wipe out the Norwegian monument and the baseball field in the heavily used Bathurst Quay neighbourhood park.

But the city plans to narrow Lower Bathurst to two lanes to accommodate safe pedestrian access across the street, which interferes with port authority ambitions for a wide street with queuing lanes. The threat of exercising the easement could rob the community of the safe passage across the street that residents and their councilor Adam Vaughan desire.