Not sure who to vote for? Unclear on the candidates’ positions? In this series we’ll be examining the major mayoral contenders’ policies on the most important issues facing Toronto in 2010.
On the one hand, community and social programs are expensive and can be abused by the lazy and criminally-minded. On the other, they also give the disadvantaged a hand up in becoming contributing members of society, and keep Toronto from becoming Lord of the Flies by the Lake. Here’s where our candidates stand…
Whatever Rob Ford’s flaws, an excess of bleeding-heartedness isn’t among them. His campaign website includes a section titled “Making Toronto a Better Place to Live”, which discusses policing, garbage collection, the TTC, and City Hall customer service, but makes no direct mention of social services.
Still, it’s pretty clear that Ford believes that government should play a minimal role in supporting the needy. At a mayoral debate back in May, Ford opined that public housing in Toronto doesn’t work, and that rather than building more of it, the city should subsidize rent for low-income earners in private buildings. In addition, he suggested that the City should have the right to move the homeless off the streets and into shelters or treatment centres.
Ford also inspired the usually forbearing YWCA to issue a rare public statement opposing his bid for the mayor’s chair. The move was partially motivated by Ford’s bailing on a debate around women’s issues after agreeing to participate, but the bad blood goes back to 2003 when Ford opposed a YWCA-sponsored women’s shelter in his ward and refused even to meet with the group to discuss it.
More recently, of course, Ford’s comments that Toronto shouldn’t accept any more refugees until “we take care of the people we have now” demonstrated a hyper-simplistic approach to the topic of social services that’s classic Ford, viewing immigration as a drain on resources when most studies demonstrate an economic benefit.
Finally, although Ford hasn’t referenced any specific cuts to community programs or social services, he’s looking to save hundreds of millions of dollars and we know it’s not coming out of the police budget.
Joe Pantalone has positioned himself as the anti-Ford, and that’s true in spades when it comes to social programs. Reviewing his site, it’s evident that Pantalone has rarely found a social service or community program that he didn’t like. Women, children, environmentalists, the old, the poor—name your interest or affliction and Joe will pony up for it. For kids, Pantalone supports more subsidized child care, expanded recreational activities for youth, and swimming lessons for everyone. Seniors get an income-based freeze on property taxes, more subsidized housing, increased accessibility on public transit, and a full-time advocate in the mayor’s office. Pantalone also has a well-developed food policy, and has promised to build at least a thousand units of affordable housing yearly, among many other things.
The list is lengthy, and by and large it’s an admirable one. However, with the city in perpetual fiscal crisis, it’s unclear how Pantalone can live up to his promises and still deliver the balanced budget to which he’s committed. There are references throughout to “working with the province,” but as previous mayors have learned, that’s a strategy that comes with few guarantees. If Joe is hoping that Dalton McGuinty will pull up outside City Hall with a truckload of cash, he may be in for a long wait.
Unsurprisingly, George Smitherman remains true to his big-L Liberal roots, coming in somewhere in between his opponents on this topic. His approach to social services is more enthusiastic than Ford’s but more hard-headed than Pantalone’s, and his platform devotes more words to creating jobs than to delivering expensive programs. He advocates helping communities to use existing resources by turning schools into neighbourhood hubs, and on the housing front takes a cue from both Ford and Pantalone, suggesting that rent subsidies are a good idea but that government also needs to play an ongoing role in affordable housing. He does propose to spend real money —$65 million—on enhancing the accessibility of public areas for people with disabilities.
While the distinction between Ford on the one hand and both Pantalone and Smitherman on the other is obvious, the differences between the latter two are more nuanced. A good example of the divide between them is food policy. Both candidates want more community gardens and urban farming, and both would encourage city departments to source food locally. However, Pantalone would increase funding for school nutrition programs, create “Neighbourhood Food Hubs” to educate people about food, and wants the city to help run local food festivals. Smitherman’s proposals are less about funding and more about enabling, removing zoning restrictions that prevent the growing of food and reducing red tape for the food service industry.
It might be unfair to say that Ford wants to take the social safety net and sell it to buy more cops, but it’s reasonable to suppose that social programs would not be at the top of the “to do” list in a Ford Toronto. For Pantalone, every day is Christmas, but his ability to finance his vision is questionable. At present, Smitherman seems to be finding the most reasonable balance between compassion and common sense.
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