Our Budgets Tell Us Who We Are
The City of Toronto will release its draft budget on Monday. But how can concerned residents respond?
“Ok, put your hands up. Now put your hands down if you live south of Eglinton.” Councillor Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East) was standing at the front of a room on the second floor of OISE. Only a handful of the 100 hands that went up stayed in the air.
“These are the people I need.”
Carroll was participating in an event put on last week by the Wellesley Institute to discuss Toronto’s budget and a recent report by the Institute—Countdown to Zero—arguing that the City could balance the budget without service cuts.
Carroll and the Institute’s director of economic analysis, Sheila Block, each spoke about the technical side of things, like the phony $774 million deficit figure and 34 per cent property tax threat, the structural shortcomings of revenue sources, and the similarity to previous budgets that were solved without across-the-board cuts. But these were facts the audience already knew. They wanted to know how they could they bring together different constituencies. How could they reach that audience north of Eglinton?
It was passionate community engagement that brought about Rob Ford’s biggest defeat since being elected mayor: losing his bid to revamp plans for the Port Lands. A group called CodeBlueTO quickly mobilized long-time activists to gather thousands of petition signatures, create public awareness, and co-ordinate councillors, citizens, and subject experts. Its consistent messaging—that the Waterfront Toronto plan was based on long-term consultation, planning, and community support—was an understandable, authentic, and ultimately winning narrative.
The CodeBlueTO success provides a model for others, like the campaign to save libraries. With tens of thousands of signatures on petitions, overflow attendance at public meetings, and the support of high-profile authors like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Vincent Lam, that campaign (though unnamed) has achieved wide recognition and looks to be heading to substantial successes. Ford has already assured Torontonians that no more branches would be closed, and on Monday night the library board rejected cuts to library hours—including a nay vote by frequent Ford ally Jaye Robinson.
But smaller-scale issues like the Hardship Fund, the Toronto Environment Office, or local museums don’t easily garner the same visibility and resources. It’s a problem that John Campey, executive director of Social Planning Toronto, is well aware of. In response, Campey’s organization has put together a website called Together Toronto, to be launched in the next week or so. We spoke with Campey after the official event wound down, and he explained: “Together Toronto provides a mechanism for people to contact their city councillor automatically…it’s a hoteling site that enables groups passionate about particular issues to get their message across.”
While Together Toronto may prove a useful resource for various constituencies and campaigns, it doesn’t do the legwork of communicating a mass message to those who wouldn’t otherwise hear it. People still need to reach out, like CodeBlue did, with old-fashioned neighbour-to-neighbour legwork.
In addition to Carroll and Block, Trish Hennessy spoke at the Countdown to Zero forum on the need for a unifying narrative, much like CodeBlue’s, to bring together various groups and initiatives in support of city services. A strategist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Hennessy conducted a series of focus groups in September with Ford voters (which she detailed in a must-read blog post) that provided counterintuitive insights into their thinking. Hennessy found that Ford voters admired the mayor’s authentic, “man-of-the-people” style, which wasn’t unexpected, but surprisingly this crossed ideological bounds so much that participants most connected Ford to—of all people—late NDP leader Jack Layton. Ford, like Layton, was deemed trustworthy, possessing the fresh and frank approach needed to shake things up and look after voters’ interests.
But Hennessy also found, for those who are concerned about Ford’s approach to budgeting, that those same voters also value city services. They identified as Torontonians first (as opposed to suburbanites), felt Ford should have represented Toronto at Pride, and voted to get rid of the perceived gravy—such as “chauffeurs”—not slashing services or wages to low-income City workers like building cleaners. In other words, among those voters there was a strong sense of civic pride and hope for the future.
Arguments based on budget details are generally too arcane to be effective. The challenge for engaged Ford critics hoping to affect the course of budget negotiations is to build a narrative around the value of city services that is relevant to the general public—to change the conversation, as Hennessy puts it. Attacks on Ford’s hypocrisy will be far less effective than focusing on the hundreds of seniors who are treated with respect and dignity due to the Hardship Fund, and risk losing safeguards. Instead of talking about debt ratios being artificially high because revenue sources are too limited, those opposed to budget cuts need to tell a story about thousands of low-income children who enjoy gifts thanks to the Christmas Bureau, and Toronto’s collective values.
This focus on the character of the city personalizes issues to make them accessible, visible, and relevant, just as CodeBlue managed to do with the Port Lands. This character-based inclusion also connects traditionally low-information voters to issues based on a general sense of civic pride. Thus, the focus is no longer on downtown vs. the suburbs, or on policy wonks vs. average voters, but on the collective character of the city—a story of what kind of place Toronto wants to be. It’s this conversation—the kind of legacy we want to leave for future generations—that actually underlies the budget.
The draft budget will be released Monday. When it is, newspapers, talk radio, blogs, and Twitter streams will rapidly flood with numbers and statistics. But for Ford critics like Block, Carroll, Campey, and Hennessy, numbers alone don’t determine the strength of the budget, because the budget is also a statement of values and priorities. And whether we live north or south of Eglinton, and no matter where we find ourselves aligned politically, we need to start talking more about those values.
The full text of the Countdown to Zero report is available online [PDF].
David Hains writes about City Hall at The Clamshell.