Letting Them Off The Hook

I’ve got no particular axe to grind with the Globe and Mail’s columnist Marcus Gee. His columns seldom either infuriate or excite me. He’s not the worst journalist covering the City Hall, not by any stretch of the imagination. At least, not until Sue-Ann Levy stops her doodled rants on the pages of the Toronto Sun. And takes Joe Warmington with her when she goes. Mr. Gee is much more palatable writing about this city than he was international affairs all those many years ago.

But he still doesn’t get it. Or, if he does, he adamantly refuses to accept the facts as they are. His stubbornness in viewing municipalities as mere after thoughts on the governance scale, last on the bus, last to exit, does us no favours. In fact, he may help entrench the view of cities as wayward children, naïve to the ways in which the world works.

“Whatever party had won [the provincial election] on Thursday night,” Gee wrote last Friday, “and whatever governing arrangement emerges now, the prospects of wringing a wealth of benefits for Toronto out of the provincial government are dim. With a projected $15-billion budget deficit, and the threat of a global economic crisis, Queen’s Park is in no position to help another level of government with its money problems in any substantial way.”

The Toronto-Queen’s Park relationship shouldn’t be about leverage and looking to cash in on enforced, political largesse. Any problems the provincial government has with its books must include obligations it has to the municipalities it oversees. Ditto the federal government. The rising deficits cities face, both from a fiscal and infrastructure stand point, originate with the debt the two upper levels of government owe them.

Even that phrasing – upper or senior levels of government – denotes a degree of priority which is long past a best before date. Municipalities in this country are groaning under the weight of negligence inflicted upon them by Ottawa and the provincial legislatures. They’ve washed their hands of responsibility and left cities to make the impossible decisions of what to cut and how deep. We are living in an era of absentee landlords, deadbeat dads if you will.

We are told by Mr. Gee that as premier Dalton McGuinty has done alright by us. He’s re-upped some of the downloads imposed by his predecessor, Mike Harris. He’s made strides on the transit portfolio, albeit in half measures. What more do we want? “Even under NDP pressure,” Gee opines, “he [McGuinty] seems unlikely to reverse himself completely and disinter Transit City. A provincial commitment to 50-50 sharing of transit costs seems just as far-fetched, given the great cost and the awful state of the provincial accounts.”

Why, Mr. Gee, should we not expect the premier to live up to his promise, now almost a decade old, to resume the provincial share of the TTC annual operating budget that was in place until the previous government at Queen’s Park reneged on the deal? How is it any different than a citizen of Toronto deciding he could no longer afford to pay the full amount of the property tax bill and cutting the city a cheque for 50% of the amount? Walking away from your responsibility is still walking away from your responsibility regardless of the state of your finances.

Besides, allowing municipalities to sink in a sea of red ink and to collapse under the weight of neglected infrastructure and a second-rate transit system does no one’s bottom line any good. That shit’s got to be paid by someone sometime or everyone suffers irreparably. This isn’t about doing something out of the goodness of your heart or because it’s politically expedient. It’s about good governance. Withholding on your responsibilities is anything but.

Marcus Gee enables such deplorable behaviour from our senior levels of government. He gives them an escape clause. We’d really love to help you out but we’re a little bit strapped at the moment. Maybe after that whole economic meltdown plays itself out, we can talk about what it is you need to get yourself back up on your feet again. Until then, you’re on your own. There’s really nothing we can do.

That’s a cop out, plain and simple. We’re paying the price for someone else’s shirking of duty. And Marcus Gee blithely let’s them off the hook scot-free.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr

9 Responses to Letting Them Off The Hook

  1. Sonny says:

    You could always read John Lorinc. At City Hall they have a $140 million surplus thanks mostly to the Land Transfer Tax introduced by Miller. The 2011 Budget was balanced with the 2010 Miller Surplus.
    Coincidentally, Del Grande want to use this windfall to pay for TTC vehicles?! So they can use the phoney baloney $774 million number still. Though maybe if not the Globe, the Star will investigate to find that when the budget process actually starts there will be a $300 million hole(my estimate)
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/cash-strapped-cities-face-funding-breaking-point/article2196924/singlepage/#articlecontent

  2. scott says:

    Interesting to see this today; just this morning I finally figured out why it is that Marcus Gee’s column bothers me. He analyzes things from frames which are given to him, rather than asking: is this frame the best way to look at the issue. For instance, Doug Ford comes up with an idea to change the waterfront, and Marcus Gee says, maybe it’s a good thing to ask tough questions about the waterfront. The city wants to sell off the zoo; Marcus Gee says, maybe it’s worth asking whether the city should be in the business of owning a zoo. He allows other people to frame an issue for him; he allows them to set the agenda, and thus of course his answer is always: well, yes, according to this viewpoint, there is some controversy here. But Marcus Gee very rarely asks things like: why should we accept the issue as Doug Ford (e.g.) frames it for us. In all his city hall coverage, he doesn’t seem to understand that the issue a lot of people have with Rob Ford’s ideas is: Rob Ford himself! If someone we could trust was coming up with these ideas, maybe we’d see things the way Marcus Gee puts them in his columns. But that world, alas, does not exist. So we’re left with Marcus Gee coming across as naive because he simple accepts what is given to him and then asks his questions within that tunnel-visioned view.

  3. Sol Chrom says:

    Can’t find fault with your argument, but on the other hand, cities which elect the likes of the Brothers Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, Mike del Grande, et al can’t really complain about being portrayed as wayward children.

  4. Andrew says:

    The reality is that that city has not changed in the last twenty years, whether it be pre-amalgamation, post-amalgamation. Through all the various mayors and city governments, my garbage has been picked up, the sewer system keeps on working, water comes to my house when I turn on the taps, the streetcar runs every 15 minutes during rush hour, 3 every 30 minutes in off peak times. The more things change, the more things stay the same. I travel the city by car, by streetcar, by bus, by bike and in those 20 years, it has remained the same. So, everyone bitches about this and that. Well, this and that have not changed nor will they change.

  5. Actually, I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. While no particular fan of Mr. Gee, his summation of the municipal-provincial relationship is accurate. Our government is a product of an early 19th century agarian economy, the balance of legislative and fiscal power largely unchanged since Confederation. You argument that Mr. Gee and those like him allow provincial and federal governments to wriggle out of their obligations to municipalities is therefore flawed. The fact is that in our parliamentary federation, municipal governments are, in law and in fact, after thoughts. To change this requires commitment and engagement from both citizens and government that none in Toronto have yet seriously demonstrated.

    Mr. Gee for all his failures of imagination and perception is, at least, providing an accurate reflection of the power dynamics in play when the legislative assembly at Queen’s Park resumes sitting sometime early this winter. A Liberal minority, major or minor, based in Toronto has less reason to defer to the demands of our mayor – popular, unpopular or upholstered in plaid – than a majority government or even a minority more broadly supported throughout the province. That our delightful two-headed circus-oddity of a mayor used his truncated honeymoon period to repeatedly embarrass the once and future premier while undoing the largest infrastructure project in the history of the city, the lynchpin of the provincial government’s plan to reorganize and improve interregional transit across the GTA and Hamilton, to boot, certainly does nothing to increase the likelihood that a diminished Liberal government would spend its political capital on Toronto. But neither was it the deal breaker some people believe.

    • cityslikr says:

      Dear LifeonQueen,

      We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke don’t think our argument is flawed based on our interpretation of the word ‘allow’. While understanding the realities, both historical and current, of the situation municipalities face in terms of legalities, we don’t happen to think the best response is to nonchalantly accept our lowly, no-can-do position. The system is out of whack and no longer functional. It’s time to start rattling some cages.

      Yes, no level of government is going to happily hand over power and revenue to another level. Yes, Mayor Rob Ford may be the best argument against giving municipalities more power. Does that mean we should just accept our status without putting up some resistance? That’s what we feel Mr. Gee did in his article. This is how it is. This is how it’s going to be. Let’s all just go back to sleep.

      We are curious to hear more of your views about the provincial-municipal dynamics in terms of transit. If Transit City was ‘the lynchpin of the provincial government’s plan to reorganize and improve interregional transit across the GTA and Hamilton’, why did the premier back down so readily? Why didn’t he stand up more aggressively to the serious pipe swinging of our mayor? Wasn’t that an abdication of responsibility on his part? It just seems to be emblematic of the problems we face. Good governance gets tossed aside for political reasons. Now you’re suggesting since Premier McGuinty has the support of this city, he can continue to play politics as usual.

      We think if anything this is even more reason for us to continue clamoring for a better arrangement in terms of how we`re governed.

      • Dear CitySlikr,

        Is it the responsibility of journalists to rattle the cages?

        This is I believe where our thoughts on the issue divide. Of all the gross distortions and inequalities from which our age suffers, I believe the willingness of the public to cede their voice to the pundit class is one of the most destructive. The fault is not in Mr. Gee (in this instance at least) but in ourselves – if Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Harper are being allowed to wriggle away from their obligations to our municipality, it is because we have allowed them to do so.

        We cannot, we must not wait any longer for a voice to cry from the editorial pages demanding a progressive tax regime to support urban infrastructure renewal. We must demand it from our representatives, in committee chambers, in town halls, in phone calls and e-mails to our MPs and MPPs. Democracy does not just happen at the ballot both but it also does not happen without effort. Ultimately, that effort must come from us, the private citizens of this Dominion. It is not the case that we must continue to clamour for a better arrangement in terms of how we are governed but that “We” must start the clamour.

        As to the late and greatly lamented Transit City plan, the premier’s retreat was based on a single salient fact, in my opinion much overlooked in the commentary – the City of Toronto has jurisdiction over Eglinton Avenue. To proceed over the objections of the mayor would have presented an enormous legal challenge and, likely, a prohibitive cost were the province to attempt to expropriate a municipal facility to build public transit. Likewise, provincial legislation to unilaterally transfer control of Toronto streets to the province would surely face a robust challenge and, if successful, the expense and operational complications of maintaining and operating these roads. There are limits to the province’s ability to mandate municipal action – while it might have been desirable to see the Province flex it’s legislative muscle in this context, it would set a dangerous precedent that would only further undermine rather than empower good municipal governance.

        With respect,

        LifeonQueen

      • cityslikr says:

        Dear LifeonQueen,

        Wasn’t there some in-between measures the province could’ve taken with Transit City and our new mayor? Somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of completely caving in and expropriation? Like force a council vote? It is a grey area for sure but it wouldn’t have been entirely out of line to ask that, given council did vote on some matters of Transit City.

        That said, I am becoming aware of the premier’s longer view capabilities and the very real possibility that a forced vote on the future of Transit City early on in Mayor Ford’s tenure might’ve actually officially killed it. Now, the ball’s back up in the air. Given the recent out loud musings by the TTC Chair about burying the Eglinton line, ie the problems with the Don Valley, possible new EAs (which, I think, would absolutely necessitate a council vote), perhaps the province could now exert a little moderate pressure to sort through the plans and re-assess which one really is the most feasible?

        As for journalists rattling cages, I do think writers like Marcus Gee who are essentially opinion givers, can expand the narrative a little bit from this is the reality on the ground to here are other possibilities. Maybe rattling cages was too demanding a phrase. How about broadening the discussion?

    • Mike Peterson says:

      Right on!

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