The new mayor of Toronto wears two heads

By John Sewell –

Losing one’s illusions is never a bad thing. A brief honeymoon period is fine, but it’s good to soon take a clear view of the real world.

And so one stumbles into Mayor Rob Ford’s world a few months after his election. The hope of a fresh broom and a strong new look at city business has quickly vanished. Instead we find a thin ideology and the vacant truth behind the mirage of a gravy train.

Yes, too many councillors took their perks as though they deserved them, but making a few cuts to their office budgets, cutting out food at council meetings, and asking them to hold their pay at $100,000 gives us no closer attachment to them, nor hope of our increased involvement in decisions.

Cancelling the car-registration tax sounded good in principle, but it results in car owners getting a rebate of $60, not quite enough to buy one half of a monthly transit pass. Who can feel good about that, particularly when killing that tax took $75 million from the city’s budget? That loss of money results in a general deterioration in city services—a few cuts to transit lines, shutting the Urban Affairs library branch which has increasingly served the growing residential population south of King Street near the CN Tower, squeezing even harder kids from low-income families who would like to participate in recreation programs, and so on.

For 25 years (until about 1995), the former City of Toronto was known to possess the most formidable array of creative and intelligent civil servants on the continent, leading an interesting portfolio of progressive policies. Ford has done nothing to turn around that decline. Instead he is burdening Downtown with the best thinking Etobicoke has to offer, which is quite dismal.

He prizes hard-line ideology over reasonable consensus. Having the province legislate the TTC as an essential service means agreements between the city and the TTC union will be decided by an arbitrator, and the evidence is overwhelming that arbitrators award more costly settlements than are reached across the bargaining table. If you think this legislation will prevent work disruptions, just think of the Toronto police who are not entitled to strike. When the police association is unhappy, it asks its member to take work action such as not issuing tickets (the last time they did that it cost the city more than $10 million in lost revenue) and a general slowdown in responses. With Ford’s mean mentality abounding, won’t most city employees want to take work action?

The mayor has been clear that he does not want to build any new transit except subways. It has become obvious the city doesn’t have the money to build new subways, so he suggests the private sector would find the money to build it. It’s a great mirage he has seen. If it is true, let’s have the private sector build all the other things we can’t afford: affordable housing, child care facilities and the new community centres.

But if the public can’t afford to do these things, how will the private sector ever do it? Only with the city’s agreement to cover shortfalls. Will taxpayers write the cheques for the private sector as they did with Britain’s transportation sector? Tony Judt’s recent book “Ill Fares the Land” shows that the cost to the public of privatizing the trains and subways in England—Margaret Thatcher’s brilliant idea—was about $60 billion.

Rob Ford is playing his Ronald Reagan card. He’s saying we can afford to spend whatever we want because no one will notice until we’re all dead. It’s a great way to run a city.

What’s needed as a counter-strategy is a set of clear programs which get proposed as alternatives at every step taken by the Ford brothers. With Rob and Doug, the mayor has two heads. We need more than just opposition to the Ford proposals, we need clear alternatives expressed in a coherent form, perhaps through a well-edited on-line city-hall newsletter. It’s not hard to show that there are better options for city residents, but they must be voiced as real strategies for people to see and understand. That kind of action will help counter despair while a new agenda for the city gains acceptance.

In our new city there’s work to be done.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.