Her campaign has been disappointing, but her platform and her values would serve Toronto best. Here is why Olivia Chow deserves your vote.
We begin—because given the last four years in the life of Toronto, it is vital to start here—with Doug Ford. His platform is primarily defined by the goal of continuing with the style of governance introduced by his brother outgoing mayor Rob Ford. Rob Ford’s tenure in office has been disastrous for City Hall, and the brand of politics he pursued—petty, short-sighted, vindictive, demoralizing, and without any regard for data, sound planning, expert opinion, or equity—is not worthy of Toronto. We wholeheartedly reject the prejudice, the ill will, the disregard for intelligence, the abuse of process, and the entitlement that his mayoralty has represented. These cannot be perpetuated if Toronto is to grow and to become more welcoming to and supportive of its current residents, much less of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be moving here in the coming decades. They cannot be perpetuated if Toronto is to rise to its biggest challenge: to finish the work of amalgamation—to become culturally and politically as well as legally united, and to engage residents to work together instead of pitting them against each other.
Despite his distinct personality, Doug Ford is a true inheritor of his brother’s politics. He lies almost constantly, he repeats his lies endlessly, and when called on his lies, he accuses his accusers of being liars instead, when he isn’t threatening them with lawsuits that never materialize. When he is recorded making statements that show a breathtaking disregard for vulnerable residents—say, the autistic teenaged residents of a community centre—he accuses the media of “misleading the public.” When he stereotyped Jewish people at a debate (which, astonishingly, he did to prove he wasn’t anti-Semitic), he claimed the next day that his wife was Jewish. Given that his wife’s family long ago converted to Christianity, it was an outrageous dodge. Most recently we have learned he has probably been lying about his own business acumen. This is one of the few things that could reasonably be considered an argument in favour of his candidacy, and even it appears now to be nothing more than a convenient myth.
Doug Ford has, in his first term as a councillor, alienated just about all of his colleagues. He, along with Rob, is largely responsible for normalizing the bigotry that has erupted against minority candidates in this election. Doug wastes the City’s time with go-nowhere fantasy projects that he never bothers to think through and that show no regard for the routine processes and procedures meant to guide municipal planning. Doug creates conflict on issues where none previously existed. There is so little that Doug brings to the table that it’s amazing he’s competitive at all. This was true of his brother’s 2010 campaign, too. But they also share this: a willingness not just to lie, but to lie so blatantly, again and again and again, until people who do not follow politics closely assume there must be some merit to their positions, because to lie as the Fords lie would be impossible had they an ounce of shame. But there is not, and they do not.
Let us now turn to John Tory, whose campaign has been a massive disappointment. John Tory’s candidacy was meant to be premised on the idea that he was a man of substance—and, more importantly, of principle. After all, the argument went, John Tory is the man who lost the 2007 election due to his unpopular but principled stance on religious schooling. There are two problems with this. The first, of course, is that it was an astonishingly bad idea—an expensive, misguided solution to a problem that Quebec already dealt with simply by abolishing their own separate school boards, because a secular government should not be paying for religious schools. The second problem is that Tory’s “principled” stance was, in fact, a misguided attempt to drum up political support from religious voters, and when it backfired he was unwilling to look like a flip-flopper by acknowledging that the idea was unpopular both with the right and the left.
Recently Tory has come under fire for claiming that white privilege does not exist. We do not have here the space to enumerate all the ways in which this position is both absurd and false. What we do have space to point out is that John Tory is a rich man’s son who got his first job because Ted Rogers was a family friend and who, after being called to the bar, was made partner at the elite law firm that his grandfather founded and that had the Tory name on its letterhead. But that is not the most disturbing thing about his willingness to dismiss out of hand the abuses, disadvantages, and prejudices that hundreds of thousands of Torontonians suffer every day. The most disturbing thing is this: in 2013, John Tory attended a panel discussion, moderated by Matt Galloway, on diversity in the GTA, during which he said,
I’ll be honest: I mean, I think that politics today is so taken up with extraneous kinds of issues and sideshows, you know, various things, posturing and so on, that they don’t really address that fundamental issue [of diversity], which I believe is fundamental … We congratulate ourselves on diversity just by the fact that it exists, but then we don’t say what are we going to make sure it becomes five, 10, 15 years from now, a huge advantage for us, and that we are utilizing everybody and giving them a chance to meet their own aspirations, to achieve them. Because if they don’t get that chance, then there’ll be a lot of unhappy people and marginalized people too.
That is John Tory quite explicitly—and reasonably—discussing white privilege. At the time, he said the inclusion of marginalized groups was the fundamental issue in the GTA, even more so than transit. He has, in effect, flip-flopped on the question of white privilege. Whether he has done this cynically to peel off racists’ votes from Doug Ford or because he has lost touch with the people, experiences, and values that led him to recognize the problem in the first place hardly matters.
Tory is running to be mayor of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, a city where inequities are growing [PDF] and where we are not particularly good at having frank discussions about the racial, economic, and geographic divisions that underwrite those inequities. So let us put to the grave this myth of John Tory’s lofty principles, or the notion that he understands Toronto and its needs.
Finally, there is this small, troubling detail: John Tory’s platform is both anemic and built on quicksand. He wants to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation but has also promised large amounts of new spending, and his plan for making this financially feasible is “finding efficiencies.” We have spent the last four years finding out this is a fool’s errand, as the Rob Ford-commissioned KPMG audit of the City’s budget (which had to recommend service cuts rather than “efficiencies”), and subsequently the Munk report on municipal spending [PDF], both demonstrated. Even Toronto’s top civil servant, Joe Pennachetti, has said as much. Tory is, in this regard, just Rob or Doug Ford in a better suit. Most of Tory’s promises to address gridlock, as well as his cycling strategy and plans to improve TCHC spending, are in fact simply City initiatives that are already in progress.
And of course, the centrepiece of John Tory’s campaign has been SmartTrack, which simply does not work—not as a piece of transit planning and not as a piece of financial planning. The numbers don’t add up and the details aren’t there: by his own admission Tory doesn’t know how much tunnelling we’ll need to do or how much it will cost, and has no contingency plan to protect Torontonians from having to foot the bill if his financing scheme fails. When pressed on this matter in scrum after scrum, he routinely offers non-answers, even in response to specific questions about the numbers: “there is no way this cannot work;” “I have full confidence Toronto can grow to support this plan;” “voters understand that not all the details can get worked out on the campaign trail.”
Tory is, like the Ford brothers before him, promising massive transit expansion for free, and resisting the implication that he is obligated to demonstrate how on earth that’s supposed to work. Instead, Tory says we have to be “bold,” pivoting very reasonable questions about the viability of his platform’s major plank into ones about our moral fibre and fortitude. We’re not sure which is worse: the prospect that Tory is once again refusing to concede he’s championed a terrible idea, or that he has truly bought into SmartTrack’s own hype. Neither alternative is acceptable.
Many individuals who consider themselves progressive look at the polls, see Tory’s lead and Ford’s threatening numbers, and conclude that Tory won’t be all that bad. They will wait until the last poll is in, they have told us, and vote for Tory if he stands the best chance of beating Ford. At the start of this campaign, we would have agreed: Tory has a reasonable track record of community engagement via work at organizations such as CivicAction. Unfortunately, the John Tory we have seen in 2014 has lost the trust we were initially willing to extend to him. He could have won us over had he mounted a different kind of campaign, and that is entirely of his own doing.
And so we come to Olivia Chow.
Chow has run, bluntly, a terrible campaign. For months she tacked cynically to the centre, using Ford-friendly words like “taxpayer” rather than showing us the respect of calling us residents, people who have more than a brute transactional relationship with our city. For months she refused to talk frankly about our need for new revenue and strategies for raising it (other than turning to other levels of government). For months she sat on progressive policy initiatives, like the recently announced one about increasing child-care spaces. She took votes on the left for granted and released poorly researched policies that later had to be revised and scaled back, such as her plan for improving bus service, which needed to be completely overhauled. She has pandered with policies she knows (or ought to know) perfectly well are bad ideas: her handgun ban proposal, for instance, will not solve any of our city’s problems with crime, though it might make some people think things are getting done.
Most generally, until very recently Chow has been giving an excellent impression of someone who is scared of her own record and unwilling to identify with her own values.
The fact that she is a Chinese-Canadian woman who speaks English as a second language has created a different kind of problem. White privilege matters, male privilege matters, and Chow has spoken openly about the racism and misogyny she has encountered on the campaign trail. Her candidacy in and of itself is an accomplishment: wherever she winds up in the polls, she has stood her ground and created a path for others who have a harder time than most gaining access to political power.
But that is not, nor should it be, decisive. Here is what is decisive: while her campaign has been inept and Chow has been, until these last few weeks, too afraid of herself to engage fully with voters, her overall platform—with the exceptions we have outlined—comprises policies that range from reasonable to very good. She has learned from early mistakes and revised proposals to reflect better data, and since Labour Day she has been campaigning much more authentically—as an avowed progressive who is willing to talk honestly about our need for new revenue (for example, her proposal to increase the land transfer tax for rich homeowners). She has been front and centre on expanding child care in Toronto—something the city desperately needs—and her platform contains many more good ideas on everything from bicycling to after-school programs to housing development. (The gun ban is unfortunately still there.)
Paradoxically, although Chow is constantly assailed for being a “tax-and-spend” candidate, her platform is the most fiscally responsible of the three major contenders. She is the only one willing to call the Scarborough subway out for what it is: a massive waste of money that flies in the face of expert evidence and will force us to spend more than a billion dollars we don’t need to spend and could desperately use elsewhere. She is the only one not making empty promises about delivering something for nothing. If spending as little as possible is a key principle of fiscal conservatism, then honest accounting must surely be the bedrock of any sound fiscal policy.
It is also worth noting that only Chow, out of all the major candidates, supports ranked balloting, which council approved in principle last year and which we need to implement if we are to break the power of incumbency and name recognition in shaping our politics.
We all need better transit and we all want better services. But the essential role of government—at least of municipal government, in a country like Canada—is to provide a certain basic equity, a certain fighting chance, for every resident who lives here. Many municipal services that lower-income Torontonians now rely on, such as student nutrition programs, were Chow’s initiatives when she was a city councillor in the ’90s. She is the one mayoral contender who would take these as central priorities into her mayoralty. In the CBC debate held Thursday, we finally got to see the Olivia Chow we’d been waiting for—the one that many people expected all along. She was angry about the right things and had specific answers about what she’d do to address them.
For all of these reasons, we are endorsing Olivia Chow. We are not endorsing her because the other options are bad, although they are. We are endorsing her because we genuinely think she will be a responsible, effective, and principled mayor, and will finally begin to heal the rifts that have been unnecessarily dividing us these past four years.