LORINC: Doug Ford’s Barbarians are at the gate

I must confess to a grudging admiration for the speed and shrewdness with which Premier Doug Ford succeeded in knocking two and perhaps even three of the four legs out from beneath John Tory’s mayoral chair, and all in less than 24 hours.

The leaked late night news about slashing council… the hasty but impressively lopsided conversation between victor and vanquished… the tellingly cautious public response… a predictably chaotic council session… the seemingly spontaneous arrival of a high profile challenger.

What a day! I would bet my last dollar that at some point in the past 24 hours, Ford and his ever-so-discrete mentor Mike Harris enjoyed a lusty chuckle together as they rubber-necked the 45-car pile up taking place at 100 Queen Street W., long regarded by their ilk as the Sodom and Gomorrah of Ontario politics.

So as not to parrot the observations about the assault on local democracy expressed by my various colleagues (and across the #topoli Twitterverse), I’d like to offer up a few other thoughts that crossed my mental radar yesterday:

Shock and Awe. While Tory claimed to have been caught flat-footed by the news of Ford’s decision to reduce council from 47 to 25, this move should not have come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched or listened to the brothers Ford over the years. There is literally nothing more central to the Ford Nation brand than their insistent braying about the costly excess of feather-bedding municipal hacks. An enduring political dynasty has been built around this one talking point. Ford’s move, though it wasn’t mentioned in his platform, absolutely did not come out of the blue. If Tory and his people truly didn’t see this coming, they’ve been living in a cave.

Trojan Horse. For those who’ve forgotten, the Mike Harris municipal reform agenda was a multi-headed beast that had a ton of moving parts, all of them launched in short order through mid-1995 to early 1997 to achieve maximum confusion and political chaos. They included: uploading, downloading, property tax reform, municipal and school board amalgamation, the elimination of school board taxing authority, the gutting of rent control, an end to the Bill Davis-era transit subsidy formula and the filling in of the Eglinton West subway tunnel. The whole process was infused with a strong spirit of on-the-flyism. Having manufactured an atmosphere of crisis, the Harris Tories acted first and corrected later, if at all.

Fast forward a generation, and what happened yesterday, I’ll bet, is merely the overture in a longer, multi-tentacled campaign that will almost certainly include, as Ford pledged, the uploading of the subway. That move will bring knock-on changes at the TTC and Metrolinx, and also the two defining pieces of legislation that define development in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (Greenbelt Act, Places to Grow Act). I wouldn’t even be surprised if Waterfront Toronto got caught up in this maelstrom of municipal upheaval. We’ve come full circle.

Paper walls. I spent some time wandering nostalgically through the empty rooms of the City of Toronto Act, 2006 (COTA) yesterday afternoon. The feeling I couldn’t suppress was that sinking sense you get when you go back to some fine-print-filled contract you signed but didn’t read, and only then realize you got taken.

Okay, “taken” isn’t fair. But COTA, despite an arduous gestation, remains a law steeped in its own tentativeness and institutional limitations. It is, to state the most obvious point, a provincial law, and therefore provides no external source of independence for the City for Toronto. Sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act – the division of powers if you missed the trailer — are still alive and kicking. Nothing in COTA seriously eroded the subservience of the city to the province.

As for COTA itself, the introductory framing seems, upon re-reading, to be as wobbly as it is high-minded. Section 2 states, “The Province of Ontario endorses the principle that it is in the best interests of the Province and the City to work together in a relationship based on mutual respect, consultation and co-operation.” Section 3: “For the purposes of maintaining such a relationship, it is in the best interests of the Province and the City to engage in ongoing consultations with each other about matters of mutual interest….”

The harsh reality is that this stuff is just politics pretending to be law. The specific politics lurking behind the language is the rare alignment that allowed Dalton McGuinty and David Miller to work out special status for Toronto without causing the rest of the province to lose its shit. Today’s politics is different, and I’ll bet that the inevitable omnibus bill the Ford Tories table will gut and fillet COTA.

The Shiny Object. My best piece of political advice right now is to pay attention to what you’re not paying attention to. For the up-and-coming Machievellian strategist, the really excellent by-product of local government reform is that everyone’s got a noisy opinion about it, and that the media will obsess about all the minutiae.

We can cover the spectacle of former political allies ripping one another to shreds, obsess about how a subway system uncoupled from the bus network will deliver bodies to work or dredge up stats comparing our representation ratios to those of other places. At some point, Ford’s people may borrow another page from the Harris playbook and recruit some respected worthy – in the day, it was David Crombie and his Who Does What taskforce – to figure out if it’s all making sense.

Our eyes, in other words, will be constantly directed towards the shiny, noisy object – municipal governance! — and therefore away from all the other stuff taking place in the wings. My own guess – based only upon watching what’s gone down so far – is that the file voters need to be distracted from watching is health care reform. Ford, after all, has to chop many billions to tame the budget, and it’s inconceivable to me that he’ll find sufficient savings in the smaller provincial line items, especially now that he’s eliminated one major source of revenue (from the cap and trade system).

Remember, too, that his old friend and political ally, Dr. Reuben Devlin, has been hired, with an impressive retainer of almost $350,000 a year, to do, well, something, and I suspect that he’s not just going to be producing another report.

So: fight for local democracy by all means. But don’t be fooled into losing track of the rest of the plot.

photo by Charles Hanchey

9 comments

  1. Excellent analysis. Doug has a lot of lessons from his bro and Donald about distraction and staying in the news. It will be an exhausting 4 yrs if we don’t take the battle to the burbs

  2. Education. If he had real guts he’d fuse the two k-12 systems, but probably not, because base. So, PSE. On the spending side: Close institutions and/or programs. Merge colleges with unis. Privatize something. On the ideology side: New powers for private colleges & trade schools. Force employer-PSE partnerships.

    Low-hanging fruit in healthcare is always compensation – people will trade something in return for keeping their jobs. Only MDs have much leverage. Cut support to long-term care w/o corresponding help for home care. Hell, cut home care too.

    *Not* advocating any of the above. Government can and should be a positive force that channels resources toward collectively determined benefits. Not an under-resourced scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, or just stuff individuals don’t like.

  3. I frequently read and greatly respect your columns – Like you, I’ve engaged in a deep dive into the COTA. Obviously, this covers the city as a whole… However, as a Councillor candidate for Ward 25, I’m also governed by the Municipal Elections Act https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/96m32

    I think this is worthy of some consideration

    As part of the nomination process and agreement I (like hundreds of other candidates) engaged in a three-party contractual agreement, effective May of this year.

    In short: The municipal election is already under way and we (Nicki Ward the candidate, The City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario) are contracted to see it through in ways that are closely proscribed.

    This beggars an important question: Before establishing a new election criteria – They must first cancel an election that is already in progress…How can this be done?

    In addition to the significant constitutional and common law implications, no one is yet discussing the civil liability associated with the wholesale breach of contract by the Province.

    Curious as to your thoughts,

    Many thanks for all you do,

    Nicki Ward
    (still) Councillor Candidate – Ward 25

  4. Obviously not in favour of democracy!

  5. Dear John:
    If taxpayers read the truth you’re promulgating here, then they won’t pay their taxes, they’ll revolt and then other taxpayers will have to make up the difference. This is subversive, and definitely not “For The People.”

    We’ve determined what’s best for “The Folks” and by your misleading the miscreants, it only means less “savings” for those taxpayers who know enough to do as they’re told.

    So we’ve decided to declare you ‘Un-Mutual’. Be warned.

    Sincerely, Ford Van Detta.

  6. You’re absolutely and distressingly right about all this, John.
    I’d only add a few details:
    Tory’s visit to the Premier earlier on was surely just a confirmation of the green light on this audacious move. Our Mayor has clearly been in the know – and probably hot wired – on hardcore Conservative policy for years. I’m reminded of Mel Lastman’s hallow threat to secede from the province. What a pathetic joke!
    Second, Conservative thinking and strategy has long been based on “setting a fox among the chickens”, causing widespread disruption to achieve other goals alongside of the immediate mess. John Snobelen, Harris’s Ed Minister, got caught with his Conservative jockey shorts showing when his famous “create a crisis” comment hit the press. As if he or they cared even a smidge.
    You are also right about the behind the scenes chuckling and guffawing that must be echoing behind the doors at Queen’s Park and other Conservative gathering places. We who consider ourselves progressively minded citizens have been outmanoeuvred yet again because we base our actions on social and moral concerns and not on aggressive, winner-take-all strategizing. I’d love Keesmat to be our next Mayor, but Ford’s tethering of Council to Conservative gerrymandering may make that a Pyrrhic victory.

  7. The media blamed Bob Rae for Ontario’s slice of the ww recession … and begat Harris.
    Harris was a civic vandal. Eventually people choose McG
    That milquetoast stopped the actual vandalism but did little to repair it. Wynne sold Hydro. Enough said. They betrayed their ‘liberal mandates’.
    Back to civic vandalism or Shock and Awe as you say … whacking what’s left of Ontario’s modern mixed economy.

    Bush begat Obama – who failed to lead real change or even prosecute the Wall street cons … he begat tRump.
    Harper the vandal begat Trudeau the saviour turned pipeline & electoral reform traitor. (Back to Scheer the vandal next?)

  8. Torture Torontonians over municipal governance issues today, kill medicare from within tomorrow? Such a set of goals will not surprise anyone paying attention.

  9. Quite correct to wonder and worry about what to watch next. It’s not really about saving money I’m afraid, penny-wise/Ford-foolish will be the practice. We should scrap the Scarborough one-stop subway Extension; sadly all three major parties seem to go along with that clunker. If there was real interest in reducing health care budget, not by having seniors walk planks, he’d embrace! biking as that daily physical exercise is wonderful for health. And we’d have more clarity about the costs of automobility, not a disguising in all budgets, and then bankrupt the system transit projects. Maybe on the road to the federal election, the federal Liberals will start to stand up for principles like having fair elections, and local democracies, and fairness in treatment of Ontario citizens vs. TO shitizens. At least the majority of the Council got some principle and got opposed, and now the really odious autocrats are obvious to all.

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