@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and more on controlling the narrative: the runup to 2014 | #TOpoli
Well, another week, another messy and avoidable scandal in Ford’s Toronto.
The whole reading-while-driving thing is getting tired by now, of course. Yeah, it was fun (in the way that only reckless endangerment of others can be fun), but it was also predictable, and while it’s pretty easy to follow the arc these things take, way things are going, there’s sure to be another embarrassment before long.
I’ve been meaning to set this out for several days, ever since an impromptu late-night beer with Daren prompted a couple of synaptic twitches. A couple of events have brought things into what passes for sharper focus among guys our age in the interim, so … a few observations on the state of politics in Toronto, circa late summer 2012.
The advent of private waste collection west of Yonge Street earlier this month brought one of Daren’s typically trenchant and well-written observations: in short, he argues that Rob Ford’s political future depends, in large part, on garbage. Amid much smirking and triumphalist chicken-dancing from some of Ford Nation’s er, “brighter lights,” Team Ford has delivered a giant FU to the city unions, following through on one of the currents of resentment it tapped in its successful election campaign in the fall of 2010. Take that, lazy overpaid socialist union thugs! End of the line for this gravy train!
While this provides an undeniable emotional jones for the union-haters, the jury’s still out on whether it’ll amount to more effective and efficient delivery of service, and in a larger sense, whether it will play out in terms of better overall municipal governance. That the private operator’s had some settling-in difficulties is a matter of record; Daren argues, quite reasonably, that while it’s only fair to cut GFL a little slack, Team Ford’s success will be judged, in large part, on whether the contracting out actually saves millions of dollars without any reductions in service. This is what Rob Ford ran on, after all.
We’ve been told, guaranteed actually, that the contracting out of waste collection to Green For Life will save us $11 million annually with no reduction in the service provided. That is the benchmark privatizing proponents gave us. That is the goal that must be met. I will argue that the mayor’s ‘mandate’ depends on it.
The Tweetr (that is what the young folk are calling it these days, yes?) being what it is, it wasn’t long before a lively discussion ensued. A full and frank exchange of views, I think they call it. My respect for the people involved is also a matter of record, but part of what prompted the segue from that to this was the participation of our friend Nick Kouvalis.
Full disclosure here: notwithstanding the way he’s regarded in some circles at City Hall, my thinking is pretty similar to Daren’s when it comes to Nick. As Daren puts it:
Although I’ve never actually met Nick Kouvalis and, in all likelihood, oppose almost everything he purports to stand for in terms of governance, I think I just might
admire like fear… what’s the word, I’m looking for here?… respect? Hmmm. Grudgingly respect him? OK. He’s a guy I’d like to sit down and have a beer and shoot the shit with. What’s the word for that?
What Daren said. Dude passes my beer test too. The guy’s good at what he does, if you define success in terms of electoral results (more on that in a minute). We don’t have to like or agree with what he does, but he’s got insights we can learn from, and I’ll say this for him: on the occasions I’ve engaged with him, he’s answered directly and candidly. Whatever else I may think of him, I have to acknowledge the straight answer instead of the bullshit smokescreen.
Again: disagree with the man, but respect his effectiveness and don’t let the disagreement turn into scorched-earth hatred. (That may say more about my bourgeois naiveté — er, my lingering nostalgia for civility and old-style conservatism — than it does about anything else, but let’s leave that be for now.)
And as we all know, Nick ran an effective and successful 2010 campaign for Team Ford. I’ve argued, however, that the municipal election of 2010 marked one of the lowest points in the history of Toronto politics, in large part because of Team Ford’s success in establishing a dominant narrative of resentment, pessimism, shallow thinking and belligerent divisiveness. The city’s falling apart. Lazy unionized workers with their culture of entitlement and jobs for life. Waste, inefficiency and gravy trains. Downtown elitists sneering at the hardworking suburban taxpayers. War on the Car. Time to blow up City Hall and start over.
I said a couple of sentences ago that Nick’s good at what he does. What he’s done, unfortunately, has diminished us as a city and as a community. The ascendancy of Team Ford has lowered the tone of public conversation, poured sand in the mechanisms of governance and devalued the currency of citizenship. We’ve been paying the price ever since, in both the regular mayoral embarrassments and the continuing day-to-day fraying of the social fabric. I’ve never tried to hide my thinking on that.
One of the fundamental themes here, both in the context of this essay and a larger overarching analysis of Team Ford’s tenure, is the difference between campaigning and governing. Once again, campaigning isn’t about nuance, but about framing your message, delivering it effectively, and mobilizing the vote in the run-up to election day. And there’s no denying the impact of simple, emotionally resonant messaging; a lot of people thought the idea of Mayor Rob Ford was a joke, but here we are.
When it comes to governance, however, simplicity and catchphrases have to give way to reflection, analysis, and critical thinking. Interests have to be balanced, stakeholders identified, objectives defined, and resources allocated in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s complicated. It’s not as easy as repeating bumper-sticker slogans like “Respect for Taxpayers.”
So here’s one of the fundamental themes for 2014: The Difference Between Campaigning and Governing.
And here, too, is one of the yardsticks whereby Team Ford’s performance will be judged come Campaign 2014. Have they delivered effective governance? Have they managed a coherent and co-ordinated operation of public institutions? Have they demonstrated the ability to work the system efficiently and collegially? This is where Nick’s record, and his own words, become particularly relevant.
Another question that will define Campaign 2014, then: Effective Governance.
Whether the current municipal structures are designed for optimal delivery of services is a larger question than we have room for here. (In that regard, though, it’s worth revisiting a couple of compelling arguments from J.M. McGrath and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler.) We needn’t resolve that question, however, to observe that a large part of effective governance, within the current context, is the ability to build coalitions, to bring people on board your team, and to work collaboratively. In short, it’s about negotiating, persuading folks to buy in, building support, and Getting Along With People.
Well then. Anyone want to try charting Team Ford’s record in that regard over the last couple of years? Anyone want to lay odds on the mayor’s chances of success in advancing his agenda over the next couple of years? You can look at big things like transit or little things like plastic bags, but the pattern’s pretty clear; Team Ford’s control of city council is tenuous to non-existent. And if you’re going to claim operational competency in municipal governance, you need to be able to work with council. It’s part of the job.
Whatever you may think of them, it’s something both David Miller and Mel Lastman were able to do. Contrast that with Team Ford’s performance. Once again, back to Nick:
To Nick’s credit, he doesn’t try to dissemble or hide this. In it to win. Take no prisoners. I’m here to get things done, not make friends. No substitute for victory. From there it’s not that far to the end justifies the means. Maybe there are aspects of this I’m not seeing, but it’s hard to reconcile an approach like this with effective team-building. In effect, it’s almost guaranteed to kneecap the mayor’s ability to build coalitions — never one of Rob Ford’s strong points to begin with.
Another overarching theme for 2014, then: Working With Council.
Team Ford’s strategy in that regard, predictably, hasn’t been that encouraging. In fairness, this isn’t about Nick; I’ve listened to enough iterations of the #FoBroSho on Sunday afternoons to recognize one of their consistent memes. Every week, it seems, Rob and Doug go on about getting different councillors in 2014, setting up a lame excuse for their own inability to bring people onside. “Sorry folks, we know we haven’t gotten any subways built, but it’s not our fault. Those people on council won’t work with us!” You can see the same impulse at work when Doug Holyday tells us not to send any more activists, unionists, or cyclists to City Hall.
I hate to get all Donald Rumsfeld here, but you work with the council you’ve got, not the council you wish you had. If you can’t do that, you’re not a successful mayor. It’s part of the job. Building consensus, putting together a team, fashioning a majority to help you implement as much of your agenda as you can. Miller did it. Mel did it. You don’t get to alienate everyone, spend the next two and a half years sulking on your radio show, and then campaign on the basis of divisiveness, resentment, and “just send me a bunch of different councillors.”
From a pragmatic point of view, folks like Daren and Adam and Hamutal Dotan are right: if you can cobble together a coalition of 23 councillors, then the mayor doesn’t matter. As the events of the past year have shown, the councillors we’ve got are quite capable of controlling the agenda and governing around the mayor if they have to. It’s not ideal, and as John points out, it raises questions about competing mandates, but it is workable.
On the other hand, Ed Keenan’s argued, persuasively, that the mayor’s record of gaffes has consumed far too much energy, focus and attention. In the wake of the Danzig shootings, for instance, Ed wrote:
With his customary bravado, the mayor proclaimed on Monday, “I’m taking a very simplistic approach.” That is the problem, I’d suggest. And so instead of discussing these very complicated issues, we’re spending time discussing the mayor’s inadequacy. What a load of BS.
Much as we might wish it were different, Ed’s got a point. Instead of chuckling about Rob Ford being in over his head or toying with the bright lights of Ford Nation on Twitter, we could be doing something constructive. Are we enhancing civic life? Are we strengthening the bonds of community? Or are we arguing about stupid shit?
So there’s one more possible storyline in the run-up to 2014: The Focus of Public Conversation.
By any of these criteria, Team Ford’s record ought to be instructive. But once again, friends: narratives. Framing. Messaging.
- From Campaign 2010 to Campaign 2014: framing the #TOpoli narrative
- #TeamFord’s two-years-and-change horizon, and a proposed two-track strategy | #TOpoli
- When thoughtful people engage with Sun readers | #TOpoli
- @Cityslikr, Riverdale Farm, and getting business out of government | #TOpoli #publicgood
Update: Now playing over at Toronto Citizens.
Misogyny, sexism and violence in popular culture: what @jm_mcgrath and @amirightfolks said
Right away, I’ll make it clear: I’m not a gamer.
Stephanie got things rolling by calling out some loser for setting up an online device aimed at Anita Sarkeesian — a woman he disagreed with. His response to the disagreement and her inexplicable failure to engage in conversation with him: punch her in the face. Virtually. Ha ha. So clever. So mature.
Really, there isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t already been said, although I was particularly impressed by Emma Woolley’s essay: among other things, she argues that nobody is entitled to an audience, to engagement, to conversation, or even to attention. You can say whatever you like, no matter how ridiculous, but that doesn’t impose a corresponding obligation on anyone else to listen to you or answer you. (That resonated with me particularly because of another loser’s smear job on another friend; the said loser tried to rationalize it by arguing that he sent my friend a bunch of questions and my friend chose not to answer.)
John picks up on this in another thoughtful essay on his own site (and John, let me know when that malware thing gets straightened out so I can link to it … ). In it, he goes into some detail about the implicit assumptions surrounding whiteness and heteronormativity, and the almost instinctive resort to violence and hatred when someone’s world view or sense of entitlement is challenged. I won’t try to summarize it here, but do go and read it ASAP.
John’s post focuses at length on the significance of online games as storytelling devices, and it’s a worthwhile look at a subculture not everyone may know about. It’s particularly instructive for its acknowledgement of privilege:
“… for many, many games there’s an unnecessary barrier between the gamer and the game … I’m a straight, white dude. And there’s almost no game I can pick up, turn on and be alienated from.”
So while I’m not a gamer, I can’t see any reason why that’s not a valid observation, and why it isn’t fodder for a worthwhile conversation. And to my knowledge, that’s the very subject Anita Sarkeesian’s trying to address. And for that, she’s been subject to a disgusting campaign of online harassment, namecalling, violent imagery, and rape threats. And god knows, she’s not the only one …
@amirightfolks Maybe you shouldn’t be a cunt, first.— Justus MTBW/ Haxagon (@EggNoggFan) July 8, 2012
@LadySnarksalot in unrelated news, can i just say that your face is fucking hideous.— Greater Than Gaming (@GreaterGaming) July 8, 2012
To which I can only respond: these guys are walking proof of what Bill Maher says about right-wingers, 14-year-old boys, and being dicks.
The only other observation I’d make, and it may be a trite one, is that this kind of thing isn’t limited to gaming. At one of the first WiTOpoli panel discussions, Kristyn Wong-Tam talked about getting hateful phone calls in which she was called a cunt; while I haven’t researched this comprehensively, I’d bet money that white guys in politics or journalism or whatever aren’t targeted with similar derogatory sexualized or racialized terms. At another WiTOpoli event, another friend talked about this kind of hatred, and how it affected her reluctance to reveal herself as a woman online.
That’s why it’s important to confront it and call it out. It’s also good to acknowledge one’s own implicit and built-in advantages, whether they’re based in gender, class, or skin colour.
Creating room for other people in the conversation demands no less.
- Yes, please - let’s have more American-style politics up here | #WarOnWomen
- Stay classy, Ford Nation! | #TOpoli
- A Sunday afternoon in Toronto | #TOpoli #PrideTO #choice
- Jay Townsend, GOP Spokesman: ‘Let’s Hurl Some Acid At Those Female Democratic Senators’
- What Would George Tiller Do? | The Nation | #uspoli #choice #WaronWomen #WTF
Plastic bags and governing around the mayor | #TOpoli
It’s really not the most cataclysmic thing city council’s ever done, but it’s worth noting for its symbolic importance.
So maybe in a few months’ time, we won’t be able to get plastic bags when we shop. People, people. We’ll adapt. There are bigger things to think about.
I have to agree with Daren on this one. Our focus has to be on the long view, and the municipal election of 2014. Because it’s evident that Team Ford’s game plan isn’t governing, but campaigning, and that campaign seems based on little more than recycling the slogans and catchphrases of 2010 in the hope that lightning can strike Ford Nation twice in the same place. Except that this time, they want Zeus to smite all the councillors they couldn’t bend to their will.
I’m not making any predictions on that score, but it does prompt a fairly prosaic question in the meantime: who’s running the shop? Who’s driving the bus? Because it sure ain’t the Chief Magistrate.
John McGrath’s written admirably and thoughtfully about this, and it’s worth taking another look as background reading (as is Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler’s response), even if I don’t necessarily agree with his argument that this is a crisis of legitimacy or of governance. He raises worthwhile questions about what a citywide democratic mandate means, especially juxtaposed against the narrower ward-based mandates enjoyed by individual councillors.
But on a day-to-day basis, ad hoc coalition-building isn’t the worst way in the world to run things. It requires frequent negotiation, willingness to compromise, and always an eye to the greater good. In short, it’s about pragmatism. And while pragmatism isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all of politics - balancing it with principle is part of the magic art - it beats the shit out of strong-arming, isolation, polarization, and fact-free talk-radio ranting.
And if that means council has to take the lead on various municipal-governance files, whether they’re about transit, public health, gang intervention, or plastic shopping bags, well, so be it. If we had a Chief Magistrate who was interested in working with his or her colleagues, it would be better - and again, it’s worth noting that both David Miller and Mayor Mel, whatever you may think of them, managed to do it - but if not, well, not the end of the world.
(I could note, as an aside here, that when even Denzil abandons ship, it’s got to tell you something. Believe it or not, even conservatives can actually make the connection between paying taxes and stewardship of the public good. That’s another argument … )
So, to 2014. There will be missteps, there will be drama, there will be laughs. And for the next election, a modest proposal for the most basic question candidates should address: do you believe that government should be in the business of governing?
We’ve seen where Team Ford stands on that. Let’s see what the other folks think.
- @jm_mcgrath and the dysfunctions of municipal governance | #TOpoli
- @jm_mcgrath, Rob Ford, and municipal governance | #TOpoli
- @AdamCF and @JM_McGrath talk governance, institutional reform, and #TOpoli
- Politics, decency, and finding common ground: the restoration of civility | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
- Conservatism: is it a label? Is it a brand? Or maybe just a little bit more? | #TOpoli
Conservatism: is it a label? Is it a brand? Or maybe just a little bit more? | #TOpoli
That smartypants fancypants @Cityslikr is forcing me to put on my crankypants. I warned you youngsters what would happen if you didn’t get off my lawn!
All right, all right, so I telegraphed that one. Indulge me.
The #TOpoli twittersphere / blogosphere / wankersphere (my usual preserve) has been all lit up over the past few days, thanks to John Michael McGrath and his thoughtful essay about legitimacy. We’ve heard from several folks in response, among them Ed Keenan, Hamutal Dotan, John Lorinc, and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, for starters. All worthwhile reads, and I’d encourage you to click on every one of these links.
But it’s today’s post from Cityslikr that’s prompting this grumpy-old-man lecture, admittedly because he’s all but dared me to correct him. Dude may be surprised, therefore, to learn that I agree with most of his argument today (probably because it’s substantially similar to the one I made yesterday). I think we’re all in agreement that while what’s been going on at City Hall over the past few weeks isn’t ideal, it’s a reasonable and workable response to a mayor who can’t or won’t work and play well with others. And it’s important to stress, as Ed and Hamutal have, that this isn’t a case of unworkable dysfunction. There’s a great deal invested, I’d submit, in advancing a narrative which paints all politicians as a bunch of fussy children squabbling in a sandbox, and in prompting exasperated voters to blow off the obligations of citizenship because, what the hell, they’re all crooks and liars.
Indeed, I seem to recall some young whippersnapper taking exception to that kind of talk some time ago. Where was it? Oh. Yeah.
But that’s not what the young scamp’s called me out about. And it’s here that I have to confess, it’s this particular debate that’s fuelled many late-night beer-enhanced conversations.
I’ll admit to a pedantic, perhaps even obsessive focus on the meanings of words. (One of my many annoying qualities, I know. Too much education and not enough wisdom, perhaps? Whatever.) But I fixate on it for a reason: words are the foundation of public discourse, and public discourse is the most basic currency of citizenship and civic engagement. If we’re to converse with each other like rational adults, we have to be able to agree on the definitions of the terms we’re using.
And by the same token, when we allow others to strip words of their meanings and repurpose them for their own ends, we’ve given away the game before it’s even started. It’s why I keep harping on winning back the words.
Which brings us to the term “conservatism.” Cityslikr’s already tried to anticipate where I’m going with this, with his fancy-shmancy Edmund Burke references. (Geez louise. You cite Reflections on the Revolution in France once, and the rest of your life, you’re shlepping around this giant freakin’ statue on your back.)
But I’m not going there tonight, because for the purposes of this argument, there’s no need to get all academic and elitist-like.
What is conservatism, at its heart? The way I’ve always understood it, it’s about identifying the best and most worthwhile parts of our history and our tradition, and working to preserve and enhance them. It’s informed, I’d submit, by a devotion to the principles of stewardship. We want to leave things the way they were when we found them, or preferably a little bit better, for the next group to come along. If that’s conservatism, and I believe that it is, then sign me up.
In Canada (pardon me while I get mythic), that carries elements of generosity, civility, caring, and community spirit. It’s something that we’ve worked for generations to build, to advance, and to extend to as many of our neighbours and our fellow citizens as possible. It hasn’t come without struggle, and it’s sometimes easy to gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of our history in honouring that, but the bottom line is: we’ve got something here - a culture, a national character, a way of relating to and caring for one another - that’s taken years to build, to develop, to foster. This is our identity. This is who we are. You don’t get to come along and sweep that all away for the sake of some ideological or financial agenda.
And that’s why it’s so important to reclaim the mantle of conservatism from those who have hijacked it over the past few decades. Because whether you’re talking about think tanks pushing the austerity agenda and lecturing us about tightening our belts, or tabloid screed-writers fulminating about waste and mismanagement and cultures of entitlement and gravy trains, what’s at work here is a focused and disciplined campaign to dismantle, to tear things apart, and to weaken the bonds of community. If these folks are conservatives, then I’m two steps left of Joe Stalin.
So, while my pal Cityslikr is right about the sort of autocratic bullying we’ve seen from Team Ford passing for conservative orthodoxy, I think he’s wrong in the way he’s set it up. (But he’s such a nice boy. He means well.)
In his opening paragraphs, he gives a vivid description of the anti-democratic impulse, and the bare tolerance of democracy. You can see that at work every day, whenever people complain about how messy and inefficient it is and then vow to keep its practitioners away from their kids’ lemonade stands. Where I differ from him is in his characterization of it as conservative. Disdain for democracy or popular sovereignty has nothing to with liberal or conservative or right or left; fundamentally, it’s about power and privilege. In that context, those are just labels. And it’s because I don’t want to see honourable traditions and intellectual currents stripped of context and meaning, and reduced to mere labels, that I’m arguing against the misuse and misappropriation of the term “conservative.”
The folks currently losing their shit because Team Ford’s losing its grip aren’t conservatives. They’re not valiant culture warriors, and they’re not courageous champions of Joe Lunchbucket Subway-Wanting Beleaguered Taxpayer. They’re just part of the noise machine, and they don’t merit any more respect or attention than that.
- Winning back the words: reclaiming ‘elitism’ in the age of Rob Ford | #TOpoli #onpoli
- In answer to @graphicmatt – no, this isn’t conservatism | #TOpoli
- Team Ford goes Godzilla on the waterfront: this ain’t your grandpa’s conservatism
- Not Your Grandaddy’s Conservatism
- Why conservatism needs to be rescued | #cdnpoli
City Council is Supreme | politics | via @Torontoist and @hamutaldotan
… we are optimistic. We have a government that is working. It is making decisions based on evidence, and it is defending those decisions over time. It is a government that has set a direction on the most fraught and most important policy file we have. It is a government that is doing its job even though Rob Ford isn’t doing his, and if it keeps on doing so Toronto may come out of this mayoralty in better shape than many of us had feared.
Hamutal Dotan puts the events of the last few weeks in a calm and well-reasoned perspective. What follows is, for the most part, from a comment over at the Torontoist site.
Really, it’s got nothing to do with Karen Stintz and where she falls on the left / right spectrum. The most important thing about Hamutal’s analysis is the counterpoint it provides to the narrative being pushed by more than one corporate media outlet, which is one portraying Toronto’s city government as being chaotically adrift. Any comment or suggestion that describes council as akin to a bunch of kids squabbling in a sandbox just helps to reinforce that narrative, and let’s not have any illusions about whose interests THAT serves.
Just think about who benefits from that perception. Who do you think wants everyone to dismiss government, civil servants and the public sphere in general as dysfunctional, ineffective and corrupt? Just listen to the radio on Sunday afternoon sometime as Brother Doug tells his listeners that he wouldn’t trust any of his fellow councillors to run a kid’s lemonade stand. Not hard to see where he’s going with that. Once again, if you haven’t read what J.M. McGrath and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler have written in this regard, take a few minutes and go through it.
So no, what we’re seeing now isn’t the ideal situation, but council is showing that for all its disparate elements and conflicting interests and personalities, it is capable of conducting the city’s business in a mature and responsible manner. Sure, it would be nice if the mayor would play ball and show leadership, but what the last few weeks have shown is that council can function, albeit untidily, even if he doesn’t. That’s a good thing.
Ultimately, what it’s demonstrating is that just because something is “political,” it isn’t inherently icky and sordid. As Shelley Carroll pointed out on Monday, governing is an inherently political process. Setting budgets, allocating resources, balancing interests, determining civic priorities … all of these are political acts, properly situated in the public realm. Pretending that they’re conducted in some rarefied space that’s only recently been soiled by politics is the height of hypocrisy. In order to believe that, you’d have to believe that the firing of Gary Webster had nothing to do with politics.
We may or may not get a rational and well-thought-out transit plan out of this. And god knows we’re nowhere near out of danger in terms of the damage that Team Ford can still do, both to the institutions and processes of governance in this city and to civil public discourse. But at least we know council can function cooperatively and democratically, with or without the mayor, and that government isn’t something to be viewed with contempt.
- @AdamCF and @JM_McGrath talk governance, institutional reform, and #TOpoli
- … the mayor and his brother are looking to replace actual governing by out-and-out campaigning some two and half years before the next election …
- From Grover Norquist to Gary Webster: putting #TeamFord’s #TTC jihad in context | #TOpoli #Toronto
@AdamCF and @JM_McGrath talk governance, institutional reform, and #TOpoli
I’ll say it again: two of the smartest fellas on #TOpoli.
I’ve already linked to JM’s thoughtful and well-argued piece, but for those of you who haven’t read it, it’s here.
It sparked a bit of Twittertalk last night (really sad, what passes for Saturday-night fun among #TOpoli tweeps), and while I won’t pretend I managed to capture the full discussion, I did note that it deserves a more thoughtful and considered response than the 140-character limit on Twitter allows.
Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler’s Facebook response, subsequently reproduced by John over at his place, is probably the most thorough rejoinder I’ve seen so far. Both these guys deserve thanks for a worthwhile contribution to the debate.
While JM suggests that the state we find ourselves in stems, in part, from the competing mandates accorded to the mayor on one hand and to individual city councillors on the other, I’m not so sure I’d go along with the conclusion he appears to draw: namely, that we’re in a crisis of governance, and that said crisis isn’t merely a function of personality, but of flawed institutional design. (JM, as always, if you think I’m misrepresenting your arguments, please feel free to post comments, on my Posterous space or my Tumblr or both. You have my word that they’ll be published.)
To some extent, we managed to expand on this last night, so I won’t try to recap it all. While I’m not so sure it’s a crisis - after all, we’re witnessing ad hoc coalitions of councillors finding ways to work around the mayor on various files - JM does make a valid point in suggesting that we can’t just dismiss the fact that any mayor’s going to have a much wider-ranging mandate than any individual councillor.
While it’s not exactly a revelation to note the dysfunctions inherent in the way municipal governance in Toronto works, JM’s post last night is noteworthy in that it doesn’t lay those dysfunctions expressly or exclusively at the door of the current mayoral incumbent. Indeed, the problems stemming from amalgamation predate the ascension of Rob Ford, and JM’s right to point out the institutional flaws in the way the megacity was designed, and how they continue to fester. Those flaws are in the provincial enabling legislation and in the way it’s been implemented, and ultimately how well any municipal administration functions depends largely on how the officials of the day manage to navigate them. Some will do it better than others …
Anyway, if I’ve read Adam’s essay properly, his main point of disagreement with JM is that this is a crisis of one mayor, rather than every mayor. (Adam, what I said to JM above? Same goes for you.) As Adam argues:
This isn’t a rogue council exploiting the system; this a council seeking leadership but finding that he whose job it is to provide leadership has abdicated his responsibility.
The question John then seems to ask of someone from my perspective is, If you’re going to ignore the mayor then what’s the point of having one? What we’re in now is possibly the most extreme case one could think of in this model of governance given that it has worked for mayors of all political stripes dealing with councils that were frequently more moderate in their views than the mayor of the day. In my mind, redesigning a system of governance in response to an extreme situation is a recipe for bad governance. We should continue to view our mayor as the person responsible for thinking in city-wide terms …
In the best Matlovian tradition, I’m going to come down somewhere in the middle, and suggest that they’re both right. Admittedly I’m being somewhat simplistic, and I won’t assume I’ve fully addressed their arguments, but on reflection, much depends on how you define mandates.
“Mandate.” It’s a loaded term. Whatever we may think of Rob Ford, he’s sincere enough in contending that his election gives him a mandate to pursue a transit vision based on subways rather than surface rail. (Whether that vision makes economic sense is another argument. And it would be nice if he and Doug stopped mischaracterizing LRT as “trolleys” or “streetcars” or whatever, and stopped talking about the “St. Clair disaster,” but that, too, is another argument.) And JM’s right in pointing out that a citywide election gives Rob Ford a democratic mandate broader than that enjoyed by any individual councillor. Just how much weight that mandate should carry, however, is another question.
And this is where my elitist bias (bring it on, anti-snooty-downtown-elite-pantywaisters …) comes into play. In my respectful submission, your mandate is only as good as the discussion it’s based on. You can pretty much guess where I’m going with this: a mandate based on shallow, thoughtless, bumper-sticker catchphrases like ”Stop the Gravy Train” or “Respect for Taxpayers” or “Stop the War on the Car” or “no service cuts, guaranteed” (bit awkward, that one) doesn’t really carry much weight (indeed, Ed Keenan’s already pointed out that Rob Ford seems to govern by catchphrases). Certainly less so than one based on thoughtful, respectful engagement, and a reasonably thorough conversation about the issues of the day.
As always, it comes down to the difference between campaigning and governing. While my view of the current administration at City Hall is a matter of record, this isn’t just about Rob Ford. Democratic governance and a healthy civil society depend on active civic engagement. If we allow shallow catchphrases to dominate public discourse, then we end up with lapel-button slogans instead of carefully considered public policy, and that’s true regardless of who’s proffering them. And that’s got more implications for municipal governance than any debate over “treachery,” or whether Team Ford’s capable of compromise or not.
Anyway, both Adam and JM have made healthy and remarkably snark-free contributions to the debate. Thanks, guys. There’ll be more about this in the next few days, I’m sure.
- Winning back the words: reclaiming ‘elitism’ in the age of Rob Ford | #TOpoli #onpoli
- The Clamshell’s @DavidHains on elitism, #TeamFord, and critical thought | #TOpoli
- @JohnLorinc and @thekeenanwire on the city budget, and dealing with Team Ford | #TOpoli
- In answer to @graphicmatt – no, this isn’t conservatism | #TOpoli
- On Rob Ford and generosity of spirit | #TOpoli #Jack
- Democratic governance and that troublesome ‘deserve’ thing | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
@jm_mcgrath, Rob Ford, and municipal governance | #TOpoli
What #TOpoli social-media types get up to on Saturday nights. Sad, isn’t it.
Seriously, though, a thoughtful, well-argued piece that raises several worthwhile questions about our current governing structures — questions that go beyond the personality-related issues dominating the current debate.
More to come.