What the Brothers Ford Keep Missing About Government
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What the Brothers Ford Keep Missing About Government

The mayor and his brother are not, despite the rhetoric, heartless. But they do lack an understanding of how government should work.

Rob and Doug Ford talking at a city council meeting in September.

Yesterday Doug Ford did something that sounds surprising: he voluntarily spent more money. Not only did he spend more money, he spent it on a social program, a program up for major cuts in the budget proposal he is currently championing.

Why the sudden change of heart?

Because it wasn’t public money—taxpayers’ money, as he calls it—that he was spending. It was out of his own pocket.

And in this small but telling moment, we find the key to much of how the Fords are trying to govern Toronto.

Toronto’s Budget Committee has been meeting all week, working its way through the massive amount of information contained in the proposed 2012 budget. Yesterday was the first of two days set aside to allow Torontonians to share their thoughts on the budget—to give, in City Hall parlance, deputations.

The list of registered deputants issued by the City Clerk at 8 a.m. on Wednesday had 348 names on it. Each deputant is typically allotted five minutes to speak, though the Budget Committee had voted a day earlier to cut that down to three minutes, since they knew the list of speakers would be long. The meeting started at 9:30 a.m. and continued over many hours, a nearly unanimous majority of deputants speaking one after another against the cuts contemplated by the City. School nutrition programs were cited especially often by the Torontonians giving their thoughts, and in fact it is quite likely that due to the mass of concerns expressed yesterday, those school nutrition programs will be saved.

Through it all, the councillors who make up the Budget Committee, especially budget chief Mike Del Grande and committee vice chair Doug Ford, stuck to similar lines of thought when they questioned deputants. “But how would you suggest we pay for these services?” Del Grande put to speaker after speaker, and “do you see a role for the private sector?” repeated Ford.

Shortly before 7 p.m., a deputant from Doug Ford’s own ward took her turn at the mic. She also was worried about school nutrition programs; in fact, she co-ordinated one at St. Maurice Catholic School. Ford asked her a couple of questions about the school, and then said, “Come talk to me after. I’ll help you out.”

A collective gasp went around the room. A few shouted, “oh, come on!” It was a classic Ford moment, the governance style of both brothers summed up in one small exchange. And it explained a great deal, both about the Fords and their detractors.

The Fords—and this moment was typical of them both, though only Doug was in the room at the time—do deeply, genuinely care about Torontonians, despite what their opponents might say. They care, more precisely, about individual Torontonians; both brothers can be moved to real empathy and generosity when face-to-face with the plight of particular residents. This is how Rob built his reputation, after all: even his staunchest critics admit that when it comes to handling constituent affairs, managing the trials and bureaucratic tribulations of the residents he represents, Ford has always been unfailingly energetic, diligent, and attentive.

This is not news. What is new is seeing how that impulse has shaped the creation of a $13-billion budget package (the rough total of the operating, rate-supported, and capital budgets in 2012)—especially since perhaps the failing the Fords have most recently and vehemently been accused of is heartlessness. How else, after all, could you describe a budget that follows on the heels of a tax cut for car owners, and then turns around and cuts student nutrition programs? What kind of values must these politicians have, if they would choose to spare the pocketbooks of…well, anyone, at the expense of underfed children?

The budget proposal currently under discussion is, as a matter of the policies and decisions it recommends, heartless. But it wasn’t, despite all the angry rhetoric, born of heartlessness. When Doug piped up at the meeting yesterday and offered to help the nutrition program in his ward, and a few minutes later when he made good on that offer and wrote a personal cheque for $1,000, he was manifesting a basic, laudable human impulse: to help where he saw that he could. (Cynics said it was a clear case of currying favour with someone who might vote for him, but that doesn’t actually capture the tenor of the exchange.) He was also modelling behaviour he thinks others should adopt. When Doug harps on the role of the private sector, of fundraising and donations and corporate sponsorships, he isn’t speaking in abstractions. Because the Fords were lucky enough to be born into a family with considerable personal wealth, this is what they are accustomed to.

The problem isn’t that the Fords are heartless, in other words. It’s that they have run up against the limits of their own experiences and don’t know how to get past them. It’s that they respond to the personal, to the individual case, and can’t see that the social programs they want to cut are made necessary by a large set of individual cases, all clumped together in one place and time.

Put much more bluntly: the Fords want for insight, not empathy.

This applies both to fine-grained management issues (what Doug missed when he wrote his $1,000 cheque is that while school nutrition programs overall face a 10 per cent cut, it isn’t being implemented across the board; rather, programs at some individual schools will be eliminated wholesale, including the one at St. Maurice) and to big-picture policy decisions. Doug seems to simply not understand why philanthropy can’t fill the gaps created by these budget cuts, and much more importantly, why that shouldn’t be necessary.

The problem with calling for personal donations is that it’s a scheme that relies on the appeal—in many cases the sheer likability—of the people pleading their cases, and the mood of those in a position to be benefactors. There aren’t enough deputations in a calendar year to cover everyone in need, and there aren’t enough councillors with deep pockets to make more than a negligible difference in meeting those needs. Fairness therefore requires not a scheme but a system, an organized way to ensure that social assistance is distributed equitably.

To make that last point explicit: a government which leaves taking care of the neediest among its population to the whims and caprices of rich private donors, individual or corporate, is a government that is defaulting on its responsibilities. This is why Canadians cite universal health care (regardless of disputes about whether some services should be delivered privately) as one of our nation’s greatest achievements: we have decided, as a nation, that we prize a certain basic level of care—in both the technical and evocative senses of that phrase—and that we are better off when we all are guaranteed access to it.

Care, as a social value, animates the Fords. It informs their actions—but it does so in the wrong way. The moral they draw is that they must, as individuals, offer assistance when they encounter other individuals in need of help. The moral they advocate in the political arena is that others must do the same. But that government is and should be a tool for doing this very thing—for ensuring a basic standard of care—eludes them.

The moral we must draw is that calling the Fords heartless is both wrong and beside the point, as are attempts at persuading them to save this program or that service by way of personal anecdote. You can’t run a city with a string of $1,000 cheques, cut by politicians with means as the mood strikes them. And as we’ve seen over the last year, you can’t reason with the politicians who are blindly convinced that’s a solution that suits every problem. The solutions aren’t going to come from the Fords; if they come at all, it will be from a council which decides to relegate the mayor to figurehead status and moves beyond the consideration of pleas to create and sustain policies that do what governments must—support many people all at once, whether or not they live in your ward and give a speech that moves you, and you can afford to help.