Thoughts on a vexed mayoralty, and what can be done to combat it.
It is far too soon to tell whether the long, dense sequence of anger-inspiring comments, falsehoods, and dubious policy decisions Rob and Doug Ford have been responsible for this month will represent, in retrospect, some sort of tipping point in this administration. What is certain is that across Toronto, a rapid-fire sequence of decisions and proclamations is causing an upsurge of anger among many residents.
Like all mayoralties, Ford’s is complex. There are many entry points to analysis and a great many questions to which we do not yet know the answers. (Does Ford think that a raft of budget cuts will genuinely make Toronto a better city, for instance, or does he not care about greatness so long as things cost less?) But as the torrent of headlines, quotable quotes, and editorials builds, commentary is starting to crystallize around one issue: anger is all well and good, but it’s not clear that it will change anything. The Brothers Ford may offend our sensibilities, but collective outrage is a reaction, not a remedy.
A great many substantial criticisms have been levied against our mayor, by a great many people. And just about every time he or Brother Doug say something eyebrow-raising, these criticisms are revisited far and wide. Let us summarize and stipulate them for the record:
1 Toronto faces real budget challenges, but we are not in the midst of a budgetary crisis. Our credit rating is strong; our debt level is reasonable relative to the value of our assets; and the opening pressure on our budget, while substantial, is no larger than in previous years—when we dealt with that pressure without resorting to wholesale service cuts.
2 Yes, Rob Ford broke campaign promises. He said “no service cuts, guaranteed” and then “no major service cuts,” and then “no service cuts in 2011,” and now “these are not service cuts but efficiencies.” This is meaningless babble. Ford campaigned on a platform whose major plank was that we could reduce the size of our budget and its impact on our tax bills without losing services. There is no reasonable interpretation of the words “efficiency” or “service” under which that claim is true.
3 It was naïve to believe Rob Ford when he made those promises. Ford was not, when he hit the mayoral campaign trail, an unknown quantity. A veteran councillor, we had years of voting records to refer to which demonstrated his views more clearly than his campaign slogans did or could. Ford voted, year after year, against all grants to community organizations. He voted, year after year, against service expansions and transit projects and… just about everything. It’s wrong for a candidate to campaign on falsehoods; it is also naïve—at best wishful thinking, at worst willful blindness—of voters to believe campaign promises that fly in the face of a candidate’s record in public office. It is nothing short of pitiful that the candidates who ran against Ford were unable to use his record against him decisively. He is at fault for breaking his word. We are at fault to the extent that we believed him in the first place.
4 Ford’s administration is winning the message war. Ford tries to accomplish things by announcing proposals as faits accompli, thereby convincing many people that fighting those proposals is fruitless. (See: Transit City, privatization of services, buyouts offered to City staff, the entire budget processes). While many find this infuriating, it has thus far also proven effective. However, the tactic only works to the extent that the public, the councillors who vote on these proposals, and the media who report on them allow Ford’s proclamations to set the agenda for our public discourse. It will stop working if we stop letting it. This is compounded by another tactic that can best be described as the Niagara Falls Manoeuvre. There is just so much going on, happening so fast, and so many outrageous things are tossed off by the Brothers Ford as casual commentary that it is quite simply overwhelming. It can be hard for the opposition to settle on a target when there are so many to choose from.
5 Rob and Doug say many things that are demonstrably false. They say many more that are offensive to a great many Torontonians. This is a real problem (leadership matters), and erroneous, misleading, or ignorant statements should be condemned (discourse matters too). But it is not the biggest problem, and the troubling statements ought not distract concerned residents from the troubling decisions that are being taken. As one City Hall observer put it, “Doug Ford is trolling us.” Should we have municipal leaders who, whether by design or out of ignorance, say things that are patently out of step with reality? No. Is it reasonable to get upset about these things? Yes. Will getting upset about these things change them? Not alone.
6 The Ford administration will not be guided by reason, evidence, or expertise. Ford, as he has told us many times, listens to the voters. Or, at least, he listens to the voters in his head. What he has not shown, at any point in time, is any willingness to listen to careful analysis on a subject. The fate of Jarvis Street, for instance, was determined neither by the environmental assessment and recommendations advanced by City staff, nor by transit planning principles, but simply by what Ford wanted. And so it goes with all decisions—it is a question of gut instincts, not arguments.
7 The Ford administration will not be guided by public opinion, and doesn’t respect public engagement in the political process. The City cheaped out on a shoddy public survey regarding the budget, Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) dismissed what results those consultations did yield as invalid, and Doug Ford has insulted the very notion that those who show up to speak at committee meetings should be heard. The mayor’s invitation to all Torontonians to come down to City Hall and address the Executive Committee this week notwithstanding, this administration has shown deep contempt for the public. It follows that getting angry with Rob Ford, making deputations in front of Rob Ford, or calling Rob Ford’s cellphone won’t change his mind, his policies, or his votes on the floor of council. Anyone who is interested in shifting the course that city council is currently pursuing can attempt to do so by speaking to the mayor, and may be showing some nobility in that attempt, but there is no reason to believe this will succeed.
8 The above statements are true whether or not you think they applied to David Miller’s administration. They describe real problems whether or not they applied to David Miller’s administration. And two wrongs don’t make a right.
Having stipulated these things, let’s note that continued outrage about the above points is not mere whinging; calling attention to the things that aggrieve us is an important part of our ongoing discussion as a city. There will be, without question, a great many more ire-inducing proclamations; we should and must continue pointing out the problems in these statements when they are made. This is not, however, a solution. And so therefore let us turn our attention to:
9 Persistent, thoughtful public pressure, not on the mayor but on certain councillors, is the best and likely only way to change the trajectory of this administration. This is the short-term remedy. There are a certain number of councillors the mayor can consistently count on to vote his way. There are a certain number of councillors the opposition can consistently count on. And there are a few councillors in the middle (the mushy middle, in City Hall jargon) whose policy commitments and voting patterns aren’t clear. They vote sometimes, but not always, as the mayor wishes. For those residents who want to avoid, say, cuts to the TTC’s budget, theirs are the votes that matter. By all means, accept the mayor’s invitation to give a deputation on the budget reports tomorrow. But when you do, realize that your audience—if you are seeking to change outcomes and not just share your feelings—isn’t the mayor or his allies in the room. It is the centrist/non-commital/erratic councillors whose votes will decide the budget and many other things besides. They all want to be re-elected, and they will be willing to vote against the administration in many cases if their constituents make it clear that the price of loyalty to Ford is getting turfed from office.
10 A substantial grassroots organization effort is the best way of improving the tenor of discourse at City Hall. This is the long-term remedy. One of the realities Ford’s mayoralty has laid bare is that Toronto can fall prey to polarization more easily than many of us would like to admit. We are, apparently, either cyclists or drivers (but not both). We are suburbanites or downtowners, patronize Tim Horton’s or the library. Of course, these dichotomies are total fictions—but that hasn’t stopped many people from using them. And so what we need is to start talking to each other, often and in new ways, about our daily experiences of the city and the ways we would like it to develop and mature. Only 53 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls on October 25. We need to care more, and we need to meet each other more often. We need to start bridging the divides that our current discourse is widening.