Tall Poppy Interview: John Barber
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Tall Poppy Interview: John Barber

John Barber has been observing and commenting on City Hall for the Globe and Mail for thirteen years. Those with an interest in our municipal government will have noticed his recent absence from the paper’s political pages, most acutely during the rather juicy, comment-worthy last few weeks.
Earlier this year Barber requested, and received, a reassignment, feeling that the time for a change was at hand. He is already missed by many, especially those with left-leaning views of the world, as the current roster of City Hall columnists (not just at the Globe but at all the major dailies) tends in the other direction. We sat down with Barber shortly after his departure from the City Hall bureau, to get bird’s eye view of Toronto’s inner workings.

Torontoist: You didn’t have it in you to stick around for the next election?
John Barber: No. (laughs)
Let’s get all the election stuff on the table. Credible opposition candidates? The list started with [George] Smitherman, but now it seems not so much Smitherman; then people were talking about [John] Tory, but maybe not so much Tory—who are you seeing that you think could be taken seriously?
I don’t. I don’t see anybody. (Coffee spilling, followed by self-deprecating laughter, and mopping.) No, I don’t see anybody there. You know, you mentioned the people who might have done it. Karen Stintz wants to run and she’s not—she’s not good enough. [Publisher’s note: One key member of Karen Stintz’s mayoral campaign exploratory committee is Rob Silver, who is also a co-owner of Ink Truck Media, Torontoist’s publishers.]
Let’s talk about Karen Stintz…
I think she can get 30% of the vote, because there’s that many people who will never vote for Miller, who will always vote for the right-wing candidate, just like there’s a lot of people that will always vote for the left-wing candidate no matter how dopey that person may be. I think Karen’ll get into that kind of a box. You know, it’s a Jane Pitfield box: people want a candidate to vote for on their side, and she wants to be that person. Jane sort of nominated herself and people really weren’t happy about it, but there was nobody else who could really do it… She just sort of ended up collecting that guaranteed minimum number of votes, and I think Karen’s on the same route.
The people who used to play the role of power-broking in order to discipline the right don’t seem to be very active anymore. And you can never stop somebody from taking their own initiative and running, which is what she’s doing. She sees the opportunity and she’s marching in there. Nobody’s sitting her down and saying: “Karen, not your turn. Just sit around and we’ll take care of you, we’ve got this idea instead,” because there’s no boss… That would be the Paul Godfrey role in the past, and I guess he’s got his hands busy or he doesn’t have as much influence anymore. That whole power structure has been dormant for a while.
So there’s not anyone that’s in the back that’s picked Stintz—if it turns out to be Stintz—who’s decided “this is our candidate.” It sounds like it’s more scattershot than that?
Yeah, I think what you’ll see is… I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Thompson ran—I think he will run.
Against Stintz as well?
Yes. Because again I think for someone like him there’s no winner—he’s not running to win—he’s running to set himself up as somebody who people are going to pay attention to for another four years as a potential candidate. If I was advising him I’d say, yeah: if he wants to be mayor, he sees himself as being mayor one day, and this is a good way to get there. At this point I’d predict him and Karen both running. But it’s hard to look forward and understand what’s going to happen. Really, don’t make me predict—it’s just another fancy way of lying.
Alright, so instead of looking forward, let’s do some looking back. Right after Miller was elected to his second term you said, okay, this is your real mandate. The first election was just about winning the election; now you actually have a platform on which you’ve been elected, I’m going to hold you accountable—now actually go do some of this stuff. How’s he doing?
My attitude about it is he was the absolute right guy in 2003. It was an emergency in this city: we needed somebody who was going to be competent and more or less uncorruptible, and that’s what we have, five years later. When I look at the Miller policy initiatives…I’m really pleased to see the direction that they’re going, just the sort of general moderate-progressive tilt of this government.
Is City Hall the most functional sort of a place? It’s fine to have the policies right, but can you really implement them? I think that there’s some big problems with the way the operation works. Policy-wise, politically, I’m a complete believer. Operationally, no. I think it’s a big bureaucratic bluuuh.
How much of that has to do with things that the new City of Toronto Act did and did not manage to do?
I think the City of Toronto Act is probably good. I think the crucial deal here was amalgamation. The problems of the City of Toronto—and I’m paraphrasing Andy Sancton, the academic—the problems are problems of bigness. It’s too big. And there’s too many people. It’s not sexy: everyone wants to talk policy. But really city government is about delivering services to people, and so there’s a base level of competence that you have to achieve, and efficiency you have to achieve, to have any credibility at all, and I think we’re on the borderline of not being able to get anything done.
What would remedy the situation? De-amalgamation isn’t going to happen, but what would make things better?
(long pause) I don’t know. There’s kind of a predilection in Canada especially to think of things as institutional problems, and if only you get the institutions all set up right everything will go smoothly. But, you know, that’s how we got amalgamation. If you start thinking about that, about structures and how you organize things, you spend a lot time redesigning something that’s going to produce the same result.
So you think it’s more of a cultural problem?
I think it’s a problem of people wanting to do things and to participate and for good things to want to happen, for positive things to want to happen and not being allowed to happen.
What’s stopping them?
Various roadblocks. The Ontario Municipal Board is one example. The freaking Parks department…dealing with these organizations. It’s a great blob there, and the bureaucracy never stops expanding, and what it’ll do is if people are doing something interesting it’ll expand to take it over, and then, again, nothing will happen.
There are some examples I think, now, of reasonably good practice in the city. One of them is the whole trash thing. If people want to look at it in a sober, objective way, the trash policy in Toronto has been brilliant. The whole Michigan thing was such a good deal. And sure there are problems with it, but then we wound up getting another landfill at the same time as the organics and whatnot. I mean, really, really pushing it. One thing that I liked about the operation is that they didn’t test everything through a million layers: they said “okay, this is how we’re going to do it, and there are going to be problems and we’ll deal with them later, but in the meantime we’re going to have a new system.”
The other agency that’s doing a good job, although it’s kind of crazy how much money they’re spending, is the water[front] people. That is a huge, huge piece of work they’re undertaking. It’s kind of under the radar, as it were, but so far it seems that they’re operating in a fairly organized and efficient way.
What do people fail to understand about how City Hall works?
I think that really on a very basic level…they all are surprised to find out that there’s political opposition to their view. “Why can’t you see this?” and “Why can’t you do this?” and “Well, do it for God’s sake. What’s the matter with you?!” Well, a lot of time what’s the matter with them is that there’s just as many people that don’t want to do that [thing], and people don’t understand that; they don’t understand that that’s how it works. You have to enter into a process and come out with generally half a loaf—and that outrages them.
If it happened to be the case that you called Rob Ford a fat fuck, is that the sort of thing you’d be inclined to regret later?
I’ve got more important regrets than that—that’s not one that comes to mind, at all. That whole episode, it’s typical of the way that place can be: really nasty, and late at night, it’s just like “Oh, God, get me out of here.”
Single best thing that a constituent could do if they wanted to become a better citizen of this city?
Ride a bike.
All photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.