For close to a year, city council has been the substitute for our crisis-a-day mayor. In its collective role as mayor, council has become acutely aware of the policy challenges that Toronto faces and at times has even put aside geographic parochialism to reach consensus on fixing what it can. Though it has had some successes, council sees many other city-wide problems that need to be addressed and, on the whole, seems eager to do just that. And yet council can’t move quickly to do so. Nor, as last week’s plastic bag ban shows, should it.
With Rob Ford abdicating his duties, council has exercised its power wisely. Until last week, council had mostly contained its ambitions such that it defeated Ford almost only to maintain existing programs and policy directions. Transit City was reinstated. Cuts to valued public services were reversed. A sustainable vision for the Port Lands was upheld.
Then council banned single-use plastic bags from being provided by retailers at the point of sale. I don’t want to pull the alarm too quickly but that is exactly the kind of stunt city council can’t afford.
With two-and-a-half years left until the next term of office begins, it’s important for council to take a deep breath and consider the mandate and moral authority it has and needs to govern us through these unprecedented times. Council’s good governance will benefit Toronto now and ensure that our next election is won based on the substantive policy debates we so sorely need rather than straw (or plastic) men.
Most dangerous to city council’s credibility and the success of those looking to unseat Ford in the next election is legislative opportunism.
The peanut gallery watching the plastic bag debate last week mocked the notion that a bag ban could win. It’s unclear if the councillors who voted for the ban even thought it would win but whether the win was foreseeable, no councillor should have voted for it. To make big decisions on little more than a whim is the kind of act that calls into question the integrity of an institution.
Voting against the motions of councillors David Shiner and Anthony Perruzza should not have been about council’s view on banning bags — rather, it should have been about its view of due process. There had been effectively no debate on the ban, no technical research had been conducted and public consultation was non-existent. Not only had there been no electoral mandate for this decision but given the complete lack of public engagement on the issue council did not have the moral authority to bring about the ban either.
Councillor Shelley Carroll tried to do the responsible thing by pushing the decision off until it could be placed within the larger waste diversion picture. Ultimately, however, Carroll’s motion only garnered 11 votes and later she, too, would vote to ban plastic bags.
Though Toronto needs an activist local government to address our major challenges, given the regression that seemed likely during Ford’s first six months in office, incremental progress or even “going in circles” are good outcomes in the short-term. Just like it took time and discipline for Ford’s anti-government rhetoric to take hold, it will take time and discipline for council to regain Torontonians’ trust and rebuild a shared vision for Toronto.
photo by Mack Male