Assessing Our New Mayor’s Movement

November 23, 2010

As we breathlessly await firm news of Mayor-elect Rob Ford’s committee appointments, I am trying to convince myself to look upon this not as a horrible, disfiguring moment in the city’s history but as…an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. It isn’t a matter of perspective. No, it’s what kind of conservative our incoming mayor turns out to be.

Kinds of conservatives, you ask? How many kinds of conservatives are there? You’ve got your run-of-the-mill, always irate, incoherent kind, flailing about in the choppy, churning waters of cognitive dissonance and then there’s…? Help me out here. Other kinds of conservatives?

Well yes, at least in theory. There once were conservatives roaming about in the wild who were of Burkean stock. Wary of excess of any stripe including rabid anti-governmentalism, your daddies’ conservatives did not seek to dismantle the New Deal/Just Society welfare state in its entirety. They simply wanted to reshape it in their own vision. Red Tories, let’s call them. These guys were the elitists of their time. Democracy was all well and good as long as there wasn’t too much of it.

Movement Conservatives, on the other hand, the spawn of William F. Buckley-Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher, are a lot less amiable. Theirs is “a revolutionary doctrine hostile to any public enterprise except the military” and, I will add, national security except for that whole no junk touching stream of unconsciousness that has recently emerged. They have manifested themselves in the likes of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party and, to some extent, our current federal Conservative government. There is no form of government that doesn’t drive them batty with inchoate anger. To their minds, democracy is merely a vehicle to smash up democratic institutions.

Much was made during this past municipal campaign about Rob Ford being our very own Tea Bagger, a bigger, louder, less foxy Sarah Palin. It’s a comparison that goes only so far. Yes, he was angry and adeptly tapped into, exploited and manufactured a wide swath of anger in the electorate. He made claims of reclaiming City Hall for the little guy. A deep streak of xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny runs through his core.

Yet, like the earlier strain of conservatism, Rob Ford seems more driven to eradicate government excesses rather than government itself. In fact, he may be prone to more democratic impulses than is normal in conservatives of any stripe. When he says he wants to take back City Hall, it is largely free of the racist, faux-grassroots chant we heard during the U.S. midterm election campaign. Ford actually sounds like an honest to god populist in wanting to give the reins of power to the people instead of his hated bureaucracy. (The irony of this is that the last thing his most fervent devotees would want or know what to do with is to actually exercise that power.)

Therein lies the opportunity at hand. On Metro Morning last week to promote the book Local Motion: The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto, Dave Meslin told host Matt Galloway how, back in 2006, when Meslin was involved with the City Idol project that sought to shine a spotlight on a diverse set of council candidates, then councillor Rob Ford was very helpful in giving his time and advice to the proceedings. Ford’s face now adorns the endorsement page of Meslin’s latest adventure in advancing democracy, RaBIT, Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto. By all accounts, our next mayor is fully on board for helping further the cause of democratic renewal.

So, fighting our way past the recoil phase of October 25th’s fallout, we can prepare to seize what may be a truly golden moment for positive change on the democratic front. A politician elected to office who truly wants to invest more powers in the populace. It is a gift we should be ready to receive and not allow him to renege on or get horribly wrong (i.e. simply cutting council numbers in half). This may be the only common ground we find with this administration. Let’s not waste the opportunity to take full advantage of it.

exhortingly submitted by Cityslikr


Better Ballots Town Hall

April 14, 2010

You know, even without any delays it is a long subway ride up the Yonge Street line to North York Centre. I was aroused from my reading material somewhere between Lawrence and York Mills, wondering if I’d read through a stop. You go really fast for a long time which, if my understanding of the physics of motion is solid (and it probably isn’t), means that you are traveling great distances.

Why would you be doing that, you might rightly ask. Heading up to the first Better Ballots Town Hall meeting, I will inform you, held in committee room #3 of the North York Civic Centre, home of the former city hall of the former city of North York. Its empty early evening halls steeped in the history where colossi of the political scene like Mel Lastman once strutted and fretted. The air remains pungent of past power, reeking of… shoe polish. Or maybe it’s the cleaning agent that’s being applied to a floor off down one of the corridors.

Better Ballots, if you don’t know and you should, is an organization committed to increasing voter turnout at the municipal level. The website can give you much better presentation of their mission but in a nutshell: less than 40% of eligible voters voted in the last municipal election in Toronto; 14 of the 44 councillors were elected with less than 50% of ballots cast; only 1 incumbent councillor was defeated while another won his ward with just 20% of the vote; the council make-up is wildly unreflective of the city’s diversity that it claims to represent. Better Ballots wants to change all that.

Local political impresario, Dave Meslin, is the Better Ballots project coordinator and has been toiling away in the margins of election reform for much of the past decade including 2006’s City Idol where 4 candidates were chosen to run for council seats in that year’s election. He chaired last night’s town hall in an amiable but focused manner, promoting inclusiveness with the 25 or so of us there while not allowing things to careen too far off topic. Like any good promoter of a cause, Meslin made sure to surround himself with other smart, articulate advocates.

There was Desmond Cole, one of the winners of the City Idol project, and now an organizer with iVote Toronto. Another Better Ballots representative, Rob Newman, talked about campaign finance reform. Julia Deads from the Toronto City Summit Alliance moderated the town hall portion of the meeting, gently but with the necessary firmness to keep the proceedings flowing. If I had any claim to being an actual journalist, there were a couple other members of the panel whose names I would’ve made note of but didn’t. One was from Fair Vote Canada, a group promoting more proportional representation at all levels of government. I want to say Jeff Peck but, maybe somebody out there who attended the meeting with much better powers of observation could correct me on that. [It was Mark Greenan not Jeff Peck from Fair Vote Canada who were referring to. Thank you to mayoral candidate Sonny Yeung for clearing that up for us. — ed.]

The intent of this town hall meeting (and the 3 others planned at various city locations throughout April) was twofold. The first was to present 14 proposals for discussion about possible reform. These included such things as extending the vote to permanent residents and lowering the voting age to 16, the pros and cons of municipal parties and term limits, several options on ballot structures and districting and the above mentioned campaign finance reforms.

Along with providing information, these town hall gatherings are also about promoting advocacy. Ideas are all well and good but they die on the vine without a movement to take them to a wider audience. The second aim of the meetings is to initiate a grassroots movement to begin pushing for the reform options that garner the most interest from those who attend the meetings and vote on the ballot provided.

Despite what you might think, grassroot movement making ain’t pretty. It’s not all Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockoviches and Meryl Streep’s Karen Silkwoods but rather a long, tough slog through outsider-ville. For every smart, dedicated activist and proponent, there are those who wear their exclusion from the mainstream loudly and proudly, sometimes hijacking the proceedings to grind an axe or to just simply have their voices heard. This manifested itself last night when a handful of mayoral and council candidates took the floor to speak their minds. More campaigning than listening, they mostly took up time and space rather than contributed to the discussion.

Still, the dialogue was far more informative and exciting than any of the claptrap and bullshit that has passed for debate and deliberation so far in campaign 2K10®©. These people truly want to change how things are done in Toronto and to explore the ideas that will ultimately translate into electing those who best represent the widest community views at City Hall. It was time well spent on the subway hearing them talk about it firsthand.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


Wilting Democracy

February 17, 2010

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have been thinking a lot lately about the state of local democracy. Well, not all of us. Urban Sophisticat seldom ponders on the subject as his preference would be for a benign dictatorship that banishes cars from cities and permits cannabis cafes on every street corner. This is not a belief conducive to thinking straight about democratic institutions.

But for those of us here not wandering around in a perpetual haze of glassy eyed, marijuana induced idealism, we have been mulling over our situation as duly appointed participants in the democratic process. Yes, it all seems alive and vibrant while in the midst of an election campaign. Caught up as we are in the proceedings, it’s hard to fathom that there are those out there more akin to Urban Sophisticat’s mindset who aren’t devouring every little morsel of news and information coming in off the campaign trail. Neither are they eagerly awaiting October 25th in order to be first in line at the polling booth to mark the requisite Xs in their appropriate ballots.

Trolling through the interwebs as is our want, we stumbled across the fact that over 60% of eligible voters did not vote in Toronto’s last municipal election. I’m sorry. You said over 60% of voters did vote in Toronto’s last municipal election, right? No, we didn’t. Over 60% of eligible voters did not vote in Toronto’s last municipal election. (Note the use of the bold, italics and underline functions for emphasis. Twice.)

Holy mackerel, that’s low. That’s low, right? Yes, it’s low. Criminally low as it would be in some places like Australia where voting is mandatory under penalty of prosecution. Keelhauling, we think they still do down there, what with their naval and shipping of convict heritage, if found guilty of voter neglect.

Yet not voting is par for the course here in Toronto. To say that we have a disengaged electorate is to dally in the shallow waters of DoYaThink!?! Creek which is a tributary of WellD’Uh River. When it comes to municipal politics, Torontonians are passionate about their lack of interest. It’s tough to fight City Hall when you’re not even sure where it is. That funny shaped thing, down by the Eaton Centre, right behind the outdoor skating rink, yeah?

From our inception, All Fired Up in the Big Smoke has chalked up voter apathy – not just in Toronto but in municipalities all across the province of Ontario – to the fact that those we elect as mayor and councilors don’t really have the power and resources to deal with the demands placed upon them. The purse and authority lie with our elected officials at the provincial and federal levels. So why waste time worrying too much about the hired help?

Turns out things might be a little more complicated than that, as much as it offends our sense of strict black and white reasoning to admit. The democratic deficit under which we are operating is a broader, deeper pit of entropy according to those who actually examine the phenomena rather than simply opine glibly about it. If Toronto isn’t alive with voter fervor, it is most definitely hopping with enthusiasts who want to change our complacent attitude toward elections.

A quick trip through the tubes and pipes of the internet reveals a bubbling cauldron of activism at work on behalf of local democracy. At a website of Kris Scheuer, city hall bureau chief for the Town Crier newspapers, there’s a concise overview of the voting (or rather non-voting) habits here in Toronto. In that post, there is a link to a blog from a fellow named David Meslin.

mez dispenser, the blog’s called and it is the work of a self-proclaimed artist and organizer who doesn’t appear to need any sleep. As the site shows, the list of his undertakings is long including City Idol where participants vied to become candidates in the 2006 municipal election. One of his latest projects is Better Ballots which is a push for electoral reform in Toronto; a drive shared by other organizations such as the Toronto Democracy Initiative.

While impossible to summarize in a single post, among other overriding concerns of such individuals and groups is the exclusionary nature of our voting system. The traditional first past the post method is a boon for incumbency that has become so entrenched that City Hall is a pale (pun intended) reflection of the diversity of Toronto. Females and visible minorities are vastly under represented while some councilors can get re-elected with just 20% of the votes cast! (I’m sorry. Did you say that there were councilors at City Hall who got elected with–Yes, I did. Such is the sad state of democracy in Toronto.)

It is a hole that we will not dig ourselves out of quickly. Aside from the usual difficulties of transforming a well fed status quo, there is the ever present problem of having to get the OK from Queen’s Park for much of the proposed electoral reform. And this is a government that was lukewarm at best toward the 2007 provincial reform referendum on proportional representation. So it’s hard to see how they would be all that permissive in allowing Toronto to have a go at it on its own.

Still, you either throw in the towel, shrug your shoulders in defeat and head off to the nearest cannabis café to watch passively as more and more of your city is handed over to those who think of it as their own personal playground or you stand up and say, there is a better way to do things. Democracy is not dead as long as there is enough of the latter kind of people. From that standpoint, I think Toronto’s doing just fine.

upbeatedly submitted by Cityslikr