Further thoughts on the Long War | #TOpoli #PortLands #TeamFord
I’ve already written about the need to keep things in perspective. This is a setback for Team Ford, yes, but it’s just one episode in a campaign that’s got more than three years to go.
We need to keep something in mind: there’s nothing resembling a solid bloc of 23 or more councillors who can be counted on to stand up against this gang’s destructive agenda. We’ve got a long ground game in front of us. Ward by ward, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, community by community. Have to believe the other side’s been doing it.
And be assured: Team Ford will learn from this, and we’ve seen how they deal with those whom they consider unfriendlies.
You must never believe that the enemy does not know how to conduct his own affairs.
If Team Ford’s Port Lands plans are truly dead, would someone mind driving a stake through them?
The plans, that is.
“This is a triumph for the public… This is a Toronto moment, a Jane Jacobs moment.”
Can’t argue with the sentiments, but I’m inclined to agree with a comment left on the Torontoist site by one dsmithhfx:
Don’t celebrate quite yet… I don’t trust this cabal of scumbag opportunists as far as I could throw them.
It’s a setback, to be sure. And much as we’d like to think of it as a turning point, the point where the wave of ignorance, resentment, stupidity, and short-term greed that the Ford approach taps into finally broke, let’s not start the happy dance just yet.
The Port Lands / Waterfront fiasco has captivated our attention for several weeks, to be sure, and we can’t underestimate its symbolic importance. But it’s also possible to think of it as this week’s Shiny ObjectTM — something thing that attracts our attention and keeps us all occupied while other things are going on.
A thoughtful essay by Dylan Reid in Spacing last week discussed the slow decline of a community through a process of dozens of little cuts. Cancel a minor program here, put less resources into something else there, cut back on the scope of something else over there. The examples Reid cites include things like litter pickup, tree planting, neighbourhood improvement programs, snow clearing, and making bylaw enforcement reactive rather than proactive.
As Reid writes:
Individually, the impact of each of these is small. And it’s quite possible some of them could be reasonable proposals for a city with a screwed-up budgetary process if they were thought through properly (e.g. all parks could have citizen committees that take care of flower planting and care, if the city provides the flowers and eases up on regulation). But done all in a rush, and all together, the overall impact will be a gradual degradation in the walking environment. It will get dirtier and trickier, and many programs that make it more attractive will be abandoned. People will still be able to walk, of course. They just won’t want to walk as much, unless they have to. And since walking is how people experience their city most directly, Toronto will feel a little bit more like a city in decline — which, given the amount of building going on and people moving in, it really shouldn’t.
By themselves, these measures may not amount to much. They don’t have the impact or the visibility of the Port Lands clusterfuck, because they don’t carry the same scale or price tag. That’s why they’re mostly off the radar. Cumulatively, however, their effect on our quality of life could be just as serious. The places we love and live in, whether they’re downtown or in the suburbs, would become dirtier, more threadbare, and less welcoming.
But this is what happens when the function of government is entrusted to people with no commitment to the public sphere. I’ve already written that the current administration seems colonized by people with no interest in using the power of government to advance the common good, and the events of the past few weeks have done nothing to suggest otherwise. When you start pulling at the threads that hold a community together, you never know when the whole thing’s going to unravel.
This is not to take anything away from the the people whose efforts forced a retreat on the waterfront, of course. And the folks involved in CodeBlueTO deserve a special shout-out. Let’s just remember, though, that this is a long war that has to be fought on many fronts. These guys aren’t done yet. There’s still a long slog ahead.
Beyond the Port Lands: Dragging Swamp Ford for the remnants of civic engagement
As the facts trickle out of the waterfront kerfuffle, it’s becoming pretty clear where Team Ford wants to take us – not only the waterfront, but Toronto as a community. The end run they’re doing around the rules and conventions is there for anyone who cares to look, and the potential consequences aren’t pretty.
As Jonathan Robson puts it:
Acting more-or-less unilaterally, the Fords appear to have authorized this corporation to retain CivicArts, a private-sector developer with a reputation for planning fantastical mega-projects in Kuwait (a one-kilometre high tower with a mosque, synagogue and a cathedral on top of three separate spires, anybody?) and Abu Dhabi, to run up an alternative development proposal which, in theory, will bring the Port Lands into play much more quickly then the 25 year build-out set out in the existing Waterfront Toronto plan. Did TPLC comply with the City’s rules and regulations regarding sole-sourced contracts when it awarded this gig to CivicArts? Is CivicArts taking the project on on spec? Where does Westfield, the Australia-based international mall developer fit in? What do local businesses think of these new plans? Has anyone asked the nearby BIAs? You see how quickly things get confusing when you don’t follow the rules?
Again, nothing new about any of this, really. By now we ought to know – this is how these guys operate. Anyone who’s purporting to be surprised by this is either being disingenuous (more on that in just a second) or just hasn’t been paying attention. The questions this raises have been pointed out by several folks already.
So, once again, let’s step back and take a big-picture view. Team Ford’s disdain for facts, for the truth, for the whole notion of transparency in government is a matter of public record by now. The implications for the shape Toronto’s urban form takes in the next decade or two are obvious.
But there’s a more immediate effect, one that’s already showing up in our daily lives and in the way we relate to one another. The most immediate example, of course, is that of Denzil Minnan-Wong going on the CBC this morning and accusing Kristyn Wong-Tam of being “disingenuous.”
I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself. When someone uses that word, I think of this:
But when Denzil Minnan-Wong uses it, it’s in a different context. I’m reminded of the old cliché about the pot and the kettle.
I’ve written previously about the debasement and vulgarization of contemporary discourse and the attendant coarsening of our political culture. I’ve also written about the strategy of stripping words of their meanings so that they can be repurposed in the service of various agendas. In Denzil’s case this morning, we’ve got it all in one nice little package; it’s just one more example of language being used not for reasoned and civil communication, but for emotional manipulation and tribal division.
In sum, it’s not just about the disregard for the rules, for transparency, and for the notion of responsible government. It’s about the obvious contempt for voters and other councillors, and the continuing insults to our intelligence. How in God’s name are we supposed to have an intelligent reasoned discussion in an atmosphere like this?
It’s a nasty dilemma. One wants to elevate public discourse from the sewer of stupidity and misdirection into which Team Ford has dragged it. One wants to be civil and thoughtful, and engage with people in a spirit of respectful collaboration. That’s the whole basis of healthy civic engagement, and of the lofty notion of citizenship. But what is one to do when the other side clearly doesn’t give a fuck?
(In fairness, it’s not just Team Ford. We’ve seen this nauseating strategy at work for years now, in more contexts than I can count. I’m focusing on Toronto for now simply because of the obvious and immediate impact this is having on the quality of our civic life.)
Some months ago, a U.S. blogger writing at Down With Tyranny came up with this gem. Different context, but the principle is the same. And I haven’t found anything that puts it better:
But it goes deeper than that. I’m citing this guy at some length because I just can’t put it any better than he did, so I’ll paraphrase: the lies are barely even the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage these guys are doing. The effect, if not the intent, of this sustained campaign of misrepresentation and mendacity isn’t just about doing an end run around Waterfront Toronto, or union-busting, or whatever; it is to Destroy Civic Debate. It creates a climate where what matters is not truth or facts or reasoned discussion, but name-calling and brute force, enabled by accumulations of money and power. It is the very antithesis of civil society.
Again, I’ll paraphrase KeninNY (who is, in his marvellous post, referring to an earlier piece by Jeffrey Feldman): this continuing campaign of smear, fabrication and misdirection is not only antithetical to functioning democratic governance. It destroys the very possibility of civil discussion by debasing the language and shifting the discourse into emotionally volatile terrain where the meanings of words count for nothing. It is not just about the lies any more. It is, as Feldman argues, wildly immoral. (Can I borrow a rhetorical device from Ivor Tossell and call it UNmoral?) Whether or not the Fords and their handmaidens are lying isn’t even half the discussion we should be having.
To hell with trying to be better or nicer or more noble. These guys are lying bastards with no regard for the truth, the voters, councillors, the rules, or the future of the city. They are betraying the trust of the people who put them there. And they are slowly destroying the very fabric of community itself by undermining our ability to reason with one another and resolve our differences. There’s nothing to be gained by taking the high road here if it means they get away with it.
Uncertainty over the Port Lands: something’s off on the waterfront
So to no one’s great surprise, Team Ford has carried the day at the city’s Executive Committee with its new vision of how Toronto’s waterfront should look. Barring any more surprises (never a safe bet with this crowd), it will land in city council’s lap in a couple of weeks.
On the surface, it’s relatively easy to suss out the motive for it, even if the official narrative still needs some polish. (Is this a “plan” or a “vision?” And what’s the difference?) It’s natural to want results when so much has been invested and we’ve been waiting so long. That the future of the waterfront and the port lands has been tied up for decades in political disputes and competing visions shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
In this light, Team Ford’s entry seems predicated on impatience with the slow pace. You can also discern clues in the language they use – note Brother Doug’s use of the pejorative term “boondoggle,” for example. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve resorted to shallow and emotionally loaded terms at odds with reasoned discussion. Nor shown a somewhat flexible approach to history, as Doug’s apparent dismissal of all the work done to date suggests.
One can’t really condemn them for impatience. I’m sure we’ve all wanted, at some point, to wave a magic wand and make it all happen NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW.
Understandable, if you’re a spoiled five-year-old. In the world of adults, however, things don’t just happen overnight.
Once again, some historical context might be worthwhile. (Has anyone noticed yet how almost every utterance from Team Ford seems devoid of any appreciation of local history, or worse, informed by a mutant and distorted version of history predicated less on facts than on resentment?) Anyone remotely familiar with what’s been happening on the Toronto waterfront over the past few decades knows about the interjurisdictional squabbles, the political paralysis, the disruptive influence of various commissions and authorities, the continuing questions about the island airport and the island residential community, and the repeated distractions tied up with real or notional Olympic bids. In that context, it’s a wonder that anything’s been accomplished at all.
Getting all three levels of government – not to mention the other stakeholders – to agree on a common set of principles is an enormously complicated thing. That’s why it takes time. Most worthwhile things do. One wants to think that whatever progress Waterfront Toronto has made over the past few years – and I’m not arguing that they’re perfect – has likewise been informed by the sober realization that the various levels of government need to pony up the cash, ensure that the right decisions are being made by the right people for the right reasons – and then get the hell out of the way. Sane, rational planning can’t take place when the future of the waterfront is tied up in short-term politics.
As several observers have already pointed out, Team Ford’s sudden intrusion into the process threatens to take years of planning, consultation, standard-setting, consensus-building and a provincially mandated environmental assessment process – and render it irrelevant. We’re not just talking about nice architectural renderings. We’re talking about soil remediation, water quality, building standards, land-use planning, zoning, community consultation, and long-term rehabilitation. Does anyone know how much it’s going to cost to start from scratch?
While it’s been tempting to milk the culture-war aspect of this (has anyone counted the number of Simpsons references?), it’s not a question of cheap shots about monorails or giant Ferris wheels. It’s about hundreds of millions of dollars invested in a rational, deliberative process. It’s about producing the best long-term outcome for the city and avoiding the mistakes of the past. Once again, we have to wonder – why derail it? Who benefits? It can’t just be impatience with process or a desire to trash David Miller’s legacy.
It’s easy to take cheap shots about greed, ignorance and revenge, given the way the Fords have conducted themselves, but ultimately one can’t help but think that the answer is both deeper and more sinister. The clues are already there for anyone who cares to look.
And what you find when you look doesn’t exactly do much for the comfort level. It’s not just a question of disagreement or differing visions. Team Ford’s seeming disregard for the formal rules and established conventions of governance has already been on display, most notably with the recent blindsiding of local councillors. One would think that if you’re contemplating a major event in someone’s constituency, you’d at least want to give him or her a heads-up; one hand washes the other and all that. You never know when you’re going to need his or her support for an initiative of your own. It’s common courtesy, and while it’s not guaranteed to produce perfect results, it’s how productive legislative bodies function despite the partisan leanings of their individual members.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, well, just look at the saga of the Jarvis bike lanes. Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s work with residents and businesses on a long-term revitalization of the street is cast aside. In its place, we got a rash short-term decision motivated, apparently, by little more than a desire to make cars go faster. Two councillors representing other wards carried the ball on this, aided by on-the-fly procedural rulings from the speaker, without any regard for Ms. Wong-Tam.
You can seen a similar dynamic at work in the Port Lands. The area in question is in Paula Fletcher’s ward, but was she consulted? Did anyone on the mayor’s team talk to her before Brother Doug (who represents a ward in Etobicoke, nowhere near the site) dropped his bombshell? Nope. She wasn’t involved in the discussions. Doug, was, however, for months – raising the question: Isn’t this just the sort of thing that would have had Councillor Rob Ford on his feet yelling about corruption?
What next? Who’s the next councillor to be sideswiped? How can anyone predict?
Then there are the questions about the Fords’ relationship with an influential developer who controls a long-term lease on land in the area. As research by York University’s Robert MacDermid shows:
An influential Vaughan developer, who donated generously to Mayor Rob Ford’s pre- and post-election fundraising drives, controls a long-term lease on the Port Lands’ Hearn Generating Station, which has been proposed as a site for an NFL stadium by the mayor’s brother Doug, wrote The Globe and Mail April 29.
Developer Mario Cortellucci, together with various relatives and individuals who listed his company’s premises on their donor forms, contributed $30,000 to the mayor’s campaign, about half of which was raised following the election as part of a multi-candidate effort to eliminate campaign deficits. He also secured a private meeting with Rob Ford, according to scheduling documents released under access to information laws.
And more recently, did Brother Doug attend meetings he shouldn’t have been allowed into? Aren’t there rules about that sort of thing?
Again, all of this gives an air of entitlement, impatience, and a sense of “rules are for the little people, not me and my rich and powerful friends.” Regardless of whose vision you prefer – Waterfront TO or Doug’s friends – you can’t help but wonder about the attendant turbulence and instability.
It doesn’t matter whether your primary concern is private investment or public planning and consultation. Neither can thrive in an atmosphere of risk and uncertainty.
Update: The indispensible Ed Keenan uses even stronger language.
Team Ford goes Godzilla on the waterfront: this ain’t your grandpa’s conservatism
I’ve tried to avoid the easy snark in reaction to Doug Ford’s musings about turning what’s left of Toronto’s waterfront into a megamall-themed, monorail-adorned, Ferris-wheel-festooned amusement park. It doesn’t do any good, after all, to get all riled up and turn into indignant sputtering caricatures of Left-Wing Kooks every time Brother Doug has a brain fart.
But it turns out it wasn’t just a brain fart. Turns out it was something that arose out of a series of private meetings with real estate developers and mall operators. Over at his place, my friend Cityslikr has already raised the pointed question: whatever happened to that transparency Rob Ford was promising? Isn’t this very much like the corruption and backroom dealing he used to rail against and promise to do away with? You know, respect for taxpayers and all that?
There’s not much point in spending a lot of detail on the obvious political arguments. “Who the hell does this guy think he is?” is the easy question. He doesn’t have the mandate to singlehandedly tear up years of planning and consultation, flushing millions of tax dollars down the drain. An easy criticism, and not likely to dissuade anything.
It’s also pretty easy to point out that pawning off capital assets in a one-time fire sale in a half-assed effort to make up an operating deficit isn’t exactly prudent management. Weren’t these guys supposed to be the antidote to years of socialist fiscal ineptitude?
One could also ask why this is getting fast-tracked to Executive Committee so easily, but again − easy question. That’s how this bunch operates. Spring it on us with almost no warning and give us less than a week to absorb and discuss. No surprise there either.
No. There’s a much larger and more overarching issue here: whence this pathological compulsion to tear things apart? First Transit City, and now this? Years of planning, study, consultation, remediation, standard-setting, consensus-building, and Team Ford wants to attack it with sledgehammers, tear it to shreds, and set fire to it – and for what? How does this benefit the public? There’s got to be something deeper and more disturbing here than mere impatience with process or the childish desire for payback against David Miller and the nefarious downtown elites.
Once again, it’s worth taking a step back and trying to view this in a larger historical context. While I’m usually reluctant to categorize things in terms of labels, I’m willing to make an exception here, if only because on the surface there seems to be such a correlation between people who identify as “conservative” and support for Team Ford.
But is there? An open letter to the city’s Executive Committee from the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance is urging caution on the Port Lands proposals for pretty much the same reasons: it’s not prudent to make wholesale and irrevocable changes to a large body of existing work and tear up years of planning without undertaking a rigorous and transparent process of public consultation:
The proposed changes to be discussed at your next meeting are very significant, are not well understood and were not the subject of any substantive debate or discussion in the last municipal election campaign.
Despite the imprimatur of noted local Trotskyite John Tory, this doesn’t sound like wild-eyed revolutionary zeal; it sounds more like an attempt to stop it, or at least slow it down.
Back to the historical context. In the late 18th century, the French Revolution was reverberating throughout Europe. The established social and political order was facing its most fundamental challenge since the Protestant Reformation. In England, the statesman and orator Edmund Burke was reflecting upon the French Revolution:
Remind you of anyone?
Burke’s words resonate here because he’s frequently cited as one of the fathers of modern conservatism. It’s worth taking some time here to reflect upon the meaning of the word; to the extent that I understand it, it carries connotations of care, civility, preservation of tradition, honouring the most worthwhile aspects of our collective past, learning from our mistakes, and trying to leave things as clean and orderly as possible for the people who come after us. It means identifying and retaining the best parts of our history and the lessons it’s taught us. We have a body of intellectual and political tradition that’s been cultivated and developed over decades, over generations, over centuries even. Sweeping it all away with a dismissive wave of the arm is not the hallmark of responsible or careful governance.
You don’t have to identify as a conservative to acknowledge that it’s an honourable tradition – one that’s stood the test of time and has much to teach us. In that light, it’s hard to see the Ford “plans” for the waterfront as anything but antithetical to genuine conservatism.
So where is this coming from? Given what we’ve seen from this bunch, I fear that it’s not “conservatism” as we understand it at all, but something more sinister: atavistic autocratic bullshit, aided by a sophomorically gleeful narrative encouraging the bull-in-the-china-shop approach because … well, just because. It’s not an ideology or a collection of ideas and tradition at all. It’s rule by fiat. Might makes right. We’re doing this because we have money and power and you don’t, so step out of the way, peasant. We don’t even have to pretend this makes sense from a financial or infrastructural point of view, and we don’t have to address your insolent questions. When was it that people used to act this way? Oh, that’s right. Medieval times. Or perhaps under the feudal system.
It’s not as if this started with Team Ford. It’s just particularly blatant because it’s served up with such an overwhelming air of triumphalism and belligerent ignorance. It’s not a pleasant realization, but the first step in confronting it is recognizing it for what it is.
As the Civic Action letter makes clear, this is going to have ramifications that go well beyond the mandate of the Ford administration and its successors. Screw this up and the damage could be irreparable. Executive Committee members and city councillors contemplating whether to get on board should keep this in mind.