Forget the Mayor. The real battle now is with City Council.
Since KPMG started releasing its reports on Toronto municipal budget cutting scenarios in June, people here have been doing a collective “Don’t tase me bro” on everything from snow removal to grass cutting, all the way up to daycare, library and zoo closings. Cultural workers are feeling particularly vulnerable, as the report made clear there was nothing preventing a decision to completely eliminate all arts and culture funding, and Mayor Rob Ford has said publicly that he “cannot justify” the $50mil in funding that is given to various groups.
The City of Toronto and KPMG were very smart with their strategy on the release of the reports. They chose to do it a bit at a time – a report on infrastructure one day, a report on services the next, and so on. It all started innocently enough. Report One: Cut the grass less? Less frequent snow removal? That’s not so bad. But then little by little the options presented in subsequent reports brought things progressively closer to home: daycare spots eliminated, libraries and parks closed or privatized, AIDS and child nutrition programs gone.
The daily dose of what our city could become was a mind numbing and heart wrenching volume of information to digest over the two or so week period, and has kept the issue of the budget in the headlines for weeks. This has left citizens’ heads spinning (that’s 'citizens', not 'special interest groups'). Just as we were digesting one possible scenario, another one would be there to absorb. If KPMG had chosen to release the report in one giant gulp, it would have sent shock waves, but it would have likely been the top three or four items which would have garnered all the headlines. The way that the options were released, a bit at a time, was a clever tactic in forcing concerned people to try to find their feet, and choose which eliminations-on-the-table they were going to oppose.
It was a divide-and-conquer strategy, but people have responded quickly and with determination. In two weeks we have had movements against the cuts in diverse and unrelenting ways. The Riverdale Farm petition and the rally by Margarat Atwood against the library closings are two examples.
What was clear in the report was two things. One was that the alleged “gravy” on which Mayor Ford campaigned never existed, something that was of absolutely no surprise to anyone not already deeply within the cynical Conservative camp. These are folks who believe that any form of public service is itself a waste of money because all things should be privatized. The second was that the savings could only come through drastic cuts to services, in spite of Ford’s campaign promises that this would never happen. Again, raise your hand if you’re surprised.
This is no longer news. Neither will pointing it out have any affect whatsoever on the struggle to come. Mayor Ford will cite the typical line of a newly elected official that “the situation changed” once he got into power and had a good look around. So, tax hikes are probably coming in addition to the cuts. Clearly, he doesn't care about the question of what he said during the election in the first place. He's in power now, and feels he can do anything he wants. The real question is what to do from here. And more importantly, how do we get through this if what we fear is to come?
Forget Mayor Ford and his Rosco P. Coltrane brother, Doug. The real action to watch isn’t with them. And in fact, all the media attention on what the Ford Brothers are saying about service reductions is serving as one big smoke screen to where the real battlefield now lies: City Council.
Since the reality on the potential service cuts started becoming clear, the new Council has shown an incredible knack for status quo. The supposedly right-wing dominated Council was unanimously in favour of maintaining grants to 259 community groups this year, and the only two votes that were against them were the Brothers Grim (even Doug voted against his brother on a number of motions) (http://www.xtra.ca/public/Toronto/Ford_votes_alone_against_funding_for_HIVAIDS_programs-10493.aspx).
Then, the Council committees that were set up to examine what cuts in the KPMG reports would be unpalatable to the public decided en masse to refer every issue back to the Mayor’s Executive, implying that they didn’t want to touch this with a ten-foot pole (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/marcus-gee/city-committees-unlikely-to-make-painful-cuts/article2104425/). And councillors like Mary Fragedakis questioned the entire approach and short sightedness of the KPMG reports at their very foundation.
All this is leading to an early declaration that the Gravy Train Mayor’s agenda is already dead (http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/07/13/comment-fords-campaign-mantra-runs-out-of-gas/). So what happens next is an interesting question, and one that will be decided not by the Mayor’s inner circle, but by individual councillors who, when faced with the possibility of angry constituents, may not be as partisan as they first thought.
Besides the Mayor, Toronto has 44 City councillors. But if you paid attention to the media, it would look as if there were only four: Adam Vaughan and Kristin Wong-Tam on the left, and Denzil Minnan-Wong and Giorgio Mammoliti on the right, with Michael Thompson stepping in once in a while to canel Christmas. For whatever reason these have become the poster children for the current struggle. The other 37 will help decide which way this will turn, and it is on them that concerned citizens should start directing their focus, because as long as we continue to poke fun and outrage at the sideshow that is the Mayor’s Office, we will be expending our energy at a force that doesn’t care what we think in spite of his “Respect for Taxpayers” mantra.
Take, for instance, the local councillor in my ward, Ward 32 Beaches-East York. Sure, Mary-Margaret McMahon largely rode a wave of discontent against the increasingly unpopular incumbent Sandra Bussin (http://www.nowtoronto.com/daily/news/story.cfm?content=177726). But she was no slouch herself. Yes, she hinted she was a fiscal conservative -- a little too quietly for some -- but she had street cred too. She was behind the East Lynn Farmer’s Market, which in three short years has become the neighbourhood hub for everything in our community from grassroots awareness in sustainability in farming and the environment. She worked to improve the local environment and work with developers to understand the unique issues in the area.
It’s fair to say that the rookie councillor may have been a bit naïve when she entered council wanting to be known as an independent ‘centrist’ (http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/03/14/middle-of-the-hall-group-stakes-out-centre-ground-at-city-hall/) who agreed with Ford’s general position that waste existed at City hall. Yet less than two months in office she declared, “The gravy’s not flowing through city hall like originally expected.”
So how will this educator, environmental and sustainability activist vote regarding the closing of the Toronto Environmental Defense Fund? Or the selling of the zoo? Or the elimination of school nutrition programs? She, like many other councillors, have been noticeably absent from all the fuss. Her website simply makes a short statement, clearly written by a staffer, that "...it rarely makes sense to cut social programs, sustainability programs or programs that stimulate the economy." But then in the next breath: "It appears there are, however, millions of dollars in savings to be had by upgrading to modern technologies and practices, eliminating interdepartmental redundancies, revising project implementation schedules, reviewing required standards levels, and eliminating a few ineffective programs or programs which have reached their maximum achievement levels."
What are they, Councillor McMahon? The people who voted for you deserve to know where you stand before the entire council reveals its cards. People in Etobicoke are already wanting their votes back. Will we want ours?
The test will be whether or not she betrays her own values and history of support of these initiatives within the very community she has chosen to serve. The answer to that question should be based as much on the views of her constituents as it does in her own values. But will it?
And so, we’re back to the point I made in my previous article that the struggle today is not one about economics, but of values. The things we value as a society will cost money, and we should be prepared to pay for them. Therefore, any discussion of significant cost cutting by those on the right is instrinsically an attack on progressive values. And guess what, we are willing to pay for them: a majority of Torontonians in the KPMG survey were willing to have their property taxes increased if it meant saving services. Has that gotten lost in the rhetoric?
But suppose after all of these efforts we still lose The Toronto Arts Council, Riverdale Farm, libraries, and everything else? Here are some tips to get your heart and mind around getting through the next little while:
1) Take a breath
There is some degree of panic on the streets, and this will not help. Toronto has been historically fickle with regards to its mayors. The same city that elected David Miller, Barbara Hall, Art Eggleton, John Sewell and David Crombie also elected Rob Ford, Mel Lastman and June Rowlands (remember her?). Ford is no doubt a more extreme breed than the City has had before, but we survived these things in the past and we will survive this too. Yes, there could be a heavy cost in the interim, and many could suffer. This is not to be taken lightly.
2) Pick a side, not an issue
All the items on the table for selling, cutting, or elimination, are bound by the same glue, namely the devaluing of public institutions as a worthwhile force in society. Except for a few possibly minor items, the rest are all part and parcel of this. So if you support day care spaces, you must also support libraries, arts funding, nutrition programs, public health, and so on. The division of public services made by the KPMG reports is an attempt by the Mayor’s Executive to divide oppositional voices into ‘special interest groups’. The right love this because it marginalizes its opposition. Don’t take the bait.
3) More on Council, less on Mayor
Reading stories of the Ford Brothers’ latest antics may be both enraging and entertaining, but they are a distraction to the real fight at City Council. So instead of posting yet another link on your Facebook regarding who he gave the finger to that day, find your Councillor, pester the heck out of them as to where they stand on the issues, and tell them honestly and convincingly who will suffer. No doubt some will be so ideological that Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and Buddha Themselves couldn’t persuade them, but there are plenty of others who could make a difference and tip the balance.
4) Remember the majority of Canadians still identify as centre-left
Rob Ford won by a popular vote of 47%. Scary but that’s still less than 50. Last Fall, the Conservatives won by a popular vote of 39.6%. One of the reasons the right is able to swing votes right now is because the left is currently more fractured. But generally speaking, most Canadians are still bound by values that have to do with the common good.
5) Artists: Remember our history
Since the release of the Massey Commission in 1951, artists across Canada have had to defend their use of public funds as an important aspect in the forming of a national identity. Governments have come and gone, and from time to time artists have taken a serious hit, but eventually the political appetite swings in the other direction. In 2002, the provincial government in Nova Scotia eliminated its Arts Council altogether, centralizing all funding decisions within Cabinet. It’s been a tough nine years for artists there, but finally they’re bringing it back (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2011/02/15/ns-arts-council.html). It takes patience but eventually things usually come around. Have things changed for good this time? We'll see, but don't assume it has.
6) When you’re at your wits-end, pretend it’s all just an episode of Batman…
…in which The Penguin, who is now Mayor of Gotham City, each week schemes anew as to how to bend it to his knee, only to be foiled by our Caped Crusader.
True, we have no Caped Crusader at the moment. So maybe next year, during the Gay Pride Parade, consider dressing up as one. Lord knows Mayor Penguin won’t be there to spoil your fun.