The Hill They Died On

(John Bowker is a community activist living in Ward 19, and the owner of She Said Boom! Records and Books. In 2010, he was featured in the CBC Radio One documentary series, Civic Muscle, and this week he spoke to Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway about the budget process.)

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“This is clearly a slap to the office of the Mayor,” spat Cllr Giorgio Mammoliti during Tuesday’s budget meeting. Mayor Rob Ford compared his council colleagues to greedy dogs who can’t resist food placed in front of them. And NOW summed up the City Council session with a triumphant, “Ford’s budget fails.”

And what exactly was in this Ford-slapping, dog’s breakfast of a budget that made the pinkos at NOW so happy? Well, it includes: spending cuts of over $300 million, over 1,000 municipal workers laid off, over $100 million banked against future debt, and a property tax increase that was below the rate of inflation. Not exactly a pinko victory.

But this was a defeat for radical conservatism, even if it remains a victory for actual conservatism. And even if you are not actually conservative, that’s still a victory worth celebrating.

The ”radical conservative” label has been thrown around a lot lately, only to be shrugged off by the mayor, who pointed out, quite rightly, that his budget proposals were not nearly as apocalyptic as some had originally feared. He described his budget as “smart, reasonable, responsible” and accused his council opponents of fear-mongering.

But a “smart, reasonable, responsible” conservative would never have risked losing control of City Hall over a lousy $19 million in reversed cuts – a pittance compared to the $9.3 billion budget. While Cllr Josh Colle and his fellow centrists were prepared to accept almost all of the mayor’s austerity budget, this $19 million represented cuts to programs their constituents told them were particularly important: cuts to the library, the TTC, to pools, to arenas, to the arts, to the environment, to shelters, to at-risk communities. All this just to save $19 million? The centrists decided it wasn’t worth it.

A mere $19 million separated the mayor from the centrists. He could have reversed these small but high-impact cuts, and still have claimed a major victory for a solidly conservative budget. But instead, Ford and his allies chose this $19 million to become, in the words of Cllr Denzil Minnan-Wong, “a hill to die on.” And that’s what was radical. Because by risking everything over $19 million, Ford and his allies showed that their agenda wasn’t really about the money. It was about teaching us all a lesson.

A few days ago, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande accused his wobbly council colleagues of seeking “short term gratification,” a strange term to apply to people trying to save programs they do not personally benefit from, many in other councillors’ wards. With the same language Pope Benedict uses when critiquing modernity, Del Grande seemed to suggest it was somehow sinful for councillors to want libraries or homeless shelters to remain open, for impoverished kids to have access to pools, or for commuters to have some elbow room on a bus. As with his controversial remarks about parental responsibility and school breakfasts, it’s clear he frames budget issues less in terms of trade-offs and priorities, and more in terms of Right and Wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having values; the problem is when you use the power of City Hall to steamroll constituents who have clearly shown they do not share them.

It was with similarly religious conviction that Mayor Ford drew two lines in the budget sand. First, he declared that the residential property tax increase would be 2.5%, “not “2.6%, not 2.7%, not 2.9% not 3%.” There was nothing special about this number except its tidiness; the inflation rate is currently 2.89%, and even the Toronto Board of Trade felt an increase of 3% was more appropriate. This rate would have provided the funds necessary to satisfy the needs of centrist councillors, while remaining within Ford’s second line in the sand: that every penny of the $154 million surplus be banked for capital purchases. Mayor Ford’s rigidity on the surplus is odd given that he banked exactly none of the previous year’s $367 million surplus, but instead used it for tax cuts. For the sake of $19 million, an actual conservative would have been willing to be flexible to keep centrists on board and maintain control of the agenda at City Hall; but this would have tainted the purity of the budget’s “message,” and a radical conservative could never allow that.

A few years ago, Cllr Karen Stintz famously slammed Mayor David Miller for focussing on “bags, bottles, bicycles.” She was arguing that City Council had better things to do than provide moral instruction in the proper management of groceries, the consumption of water, or one’s preferred method of transportation. Fair or not, Stintz had a point: no one likes being lectured to by their government. And so it is ironic that Stintz found herself pushing a right-wing mirror image of what she once condemned, abandoning pragmatic governance for the sake of moralistic abstractions. Hopefully she, along with Mayor Ford and other conservatives on council, will now look into the mirror and restore the principles of realism, continuity and accountability that used to define “conservatism” in this city.

Centrist councillors ultimately supported a conservative budget, but they refused to be enlisted in a culture war against the citizens of Toronto. For those of us who are tired of sermons from our elected representatives, this is a radical change we should welcome.

submitted by John Bowker

3 thoughts on “The Hill They Died On

  1. OK, so the results weren’t perfect. Toronto is like a patient who fears a diagnosis of lung cancer, but then finds out they only have pneumonia. They still have a problem.

    Nevertheless I for one am encouraged by this result. And I need that sense of encouragement, a sense that my interest and concern is not wasted on problems so hopeless that I would be better off finding something I can influence.

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