Ford Nation Notion

The good news, after reading Trish Hennessy’s post over at Framed In Canada, Mythology: Ford Nation, one year later, is that the great urban-suburban, car-bike, conservative-progressive divide that we all presumed existed may be overblown, misunderstood and little more than a scary figment of our collective imagination. Hoo-rah! The bad news? Well, there may be a division much more pernicious and tough to bridge.

Looking on the bright side first, let’s just set aside all that talk about de-amalgamation, shall we? It’s unhelpful, pretty much unrealistic and quite possibly detrimental to our future well being as a city and region. Rather than a Ford Nation, we all are a Leafs Nation, united in quiet pride at almost getting it right and fumbling with what was once a great franchise. Here’s to being in constant rebuilding mode.

“As regionally divisive as the election of Rob Ford might appear,” Ms. Hennessy writes, “most of the Ford voters we listened to identified as being Torontonian first. Most have either lived in different parts of the city or have to cross the city for work and they feel some responsibility for Toronto as a whole.

Rather than wanting to see their city fall into decline, these Ford voters expressed a hope and vision for the city that is positive, united, safe, clean, green, diverse, welcoming, vibrant and easier to get around in. Some even dream of having more bike lanes, as long as they’re safe for both cyclists and drivers.

They want a city that works together, for a common purpose.

They still believe in the value of public services, and many want better public services – especially when it comes to public transit, which is becoming a symbol of a city in need of a fix.”

That those wanting all of that for the city saw in candidate Rob Ford someone who’d deliver such things is, for those of us who didn’t, the crux of the mystery. Green? Diverse? Welcoming? Where did they see that in Ford’s campaign? Wasn’t he the one who said Toronto couldn’t afford any more people? And Mr. War On The Car green?

It’s almost as if we were talking about two completely different candidates for mayor. Those of us seeing Rob Ford as a destructive force for this city and those who, to again quote Trish Hennessy, “…believed he was willing to fight the establishment on behalf of the people…He [Ford] made them feel hopeful that positive change was coming; that he was going to punch a hole into the bubble of the elites.” How was such a gaping cavernous dichotomy of opinion possible?

Bringing us to the bad news I took away from the post. I read and reread it a few times and nowhere did I see the Ford voting participants in the Environics focus group talk about taxes outside of “…a simmering sense that they have been paying more taxes and user fees while getting less or worse public service in return.” Ford’s Gravy Train “…was considered a symbol for city finances in need of restraint, for people at the top of the city hall food chain abusing power – the ones they read about in the newspaper [italics ours]…” All those fat cats, Rob Ford railed against. “In terms of job cuts, their expectation is that Ford would go after the people ‘at the top’ of the scale.”

What I didn’t find in Ms. Hennessy’s post was any talk of if there was no gravy or not anywhere near the amount candidate Ford claimed he could find — like say 10%, in each and every city department — would they be willing to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, the ‘simmering sense’ they felt about paying more taxes and user fees ‘while getting less or worse public service in return’ was unfounded? “While participants support the notion of some service and job cuts to balance the budget, they raised several points that indicate most won’t support across-the-board massive cuts.” So would these Ford supporters pay more to avoid ‘across-the-board massive cuts’? If so, how much more? A 30% property tax increase the mayor and his strict adherents are now throwing around?

I don’t know if such a question was asked of this small Ford voting cohort by Environics. How much are the services that they believed the public relies on worth to them? The same? More?

That, I think, is the fundamental divide we’re facing right now. Between those believing we’re paying more or just the right amount for the services we want and demand from the city and those who aren’t as convinced that’s the case. We in the latter camp never, the 53% of Torontonians not casting their ballot for Rob Ford last year, never “… believed Rob Ford when he said he could cut government waste without affecting city services.” Nearly a year later we see the proof of that conviction in the pudding. The KPMG core services review backed that up. The mayor’s slash-and-burn proposals provides further evidence that the city, despite some of the instances of wasteful spending and other seeming excesses that are regularly trotted out as examples of profligacy, is delivering services at very reasonable rates. Perfect? No one ever claimed that. Value for money? Overall, it’s looking more and more like it.

In her post, Ms. Hennessy uses turns of phrases like ‘whether the facts add up or not’ or ‘when in reality’. About cancelling the Vehicle Registration Tax, she suggests “Few [of the focus group participants] associate the cost of that tax cut with the city’s budget woes today.” It suggests a disturbing gap between belief and reality. Even now, a year into Rob Ford’s mayoralty, some of those who voted for him are holding on to the notion that we can have all the amenities our city offers without paying the price necessary to maintain them. They seem to think there’s an easy fix that doesn’t involve having to pay more.

To my mind, that’s the gap needing to be filled. Rob Ford promised gain without pain, a shift of blame from our unrealistic expectations onto manufactured bogeymen who either weren’t real or weren’t sticking it to the honest, hardworking taxpayers to the degree he claimed. Ford voters were duped which is a hard pill to swallow and not a constructive point of departure in reaching out in going forward from here.

The question is, how do we bridge such a chasm of perspective?

wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr

Citizens As Monetary Units (Hee, Hee. Hee, Hee. He Said ‘Unit’)

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke… and by ‘we’, I mean ‘me’, still all alone in this office for months now… I’ve been pondering upon this taxpayer vs. citizen notion. Probably much of that having to do with our Walmart manager mayor, Rob Ford, and all his talk of ‘value for money’ and Respect For The Taxpayer and “Good morning, sir. Can I help you? Linen and nachos? Aisle 37.”

It’s a monetization of citizenship.

The issue reared its head again recently, with the questions of spending over at the TCHC and the mayor’s own words a week or so ago when he was sputtering out blather in an attempt to cover yet another homophobic gaffe. He’d been the lone voice at council to vote against taking provincial funds to provide STI awareness and screening. His publicly stated reason? “Everyone says it’s provincial money. No. It’s taxpayers’ money. So, you know what? In the big picture, they say it doesn’t cost the city a dime. Well, it costs people money…”

That’s when it hit me. No, Mayor Ford, it isn’t the taxpayers’ money. Taxes are the rent we pay to live in a civilized society. (h/t Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr..) We pay so that we can walk/drive/bike on safe, clean streets. We pay to have potable water come directly into our homes and to have the sewage taken away. To have our garbage collected. The snow plowed. To educate our children. Etc., etc. etc. Taxes are what we owe in order that we can inhabit a hospitable environment and more easily get on with living our lives.

Take a look at this and see the breadth of services this city offers in return for the taxes we submit. I’d call that pretty good value for money. And if you still aren’t convinced and resent handing over your money, let me paraphrase a Tweet I saw awhile back. Go live in the fucking woods.

Yes, there are always hiccups. Misuse of funds. Sometimes even illegalities. That tends to happen in organizations that deal with billions of dollars a year. So far, though, even in gravy laden Toronto, it is a very small fraction of the overall money spent and, as the Auditor-General report shows, mechanisms are in place to root out and curb excesses.

How taxes are allocated and who pays how much is all part of the negotiation of living in a liberal democracy. Parties form around that particular issue. Some elections hinge on it. (See, Toronto municipal election, October 25th, 2010.)

I attended a transit seminar earlier this week at the Institute on Municipal Governance and Finance where one of the speakers was Barry Watson, President and Chief Executive Officer, of Environics Research Group. In his presentation, he stated over 2/3 of people expressed a preference for better services to tax cuts. In fact, in a survey done last December entitled Focus GTA, just as the Ford Nation was forming, more than 3 times the people asked cited transportation concerns over the issue of taxes. According to Dr. Watson, for most Canadians (both inside and outside Ford Nation presumably) the issue of taxation is not a major fixation. 70% of us see taxes as mostly a force for good, and that’s down noticeably over the past 5 years. I wonder why that could be.

Cue the anti-tax crusaders.

For, it seems, taxes do become a dominant issue when we start to believe that they are being squandered by our government, when all we hear about is wasteful spending, disrespect for the taxpayer and, yes, Teh Gravy Train. It’s almost as if our one note mayor and his crack team of messengers researched this and realized they could put together a winning formula by just harping on, over and over and over and over, about waste, excess and disrespect, using big numbers and de-contextualized anecdotal evidence, to blow the situation out of all proportion and beyond the actual reality on the ground. If one tended to cynically believe in that sort of crass politics, that is.

That is in no way to diminish the problems that arise like we’ve seen this week with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. But we need to step back and take a more measured response, to try and understand its actual scope and the true degree of malfeasance at work here. Over-reacting and baying like bib-and-tuckered bloodhounds (for all you Christopher Fry fans out there) is counterproductive. It only plays into the mayor’s hands and his anti-tax/government spending histrionics. Without our indignation and outrage, he’s got nothing.

To survive, Mayor Ford needs to de-couple the notion of citizenry and taxation. He needs to reduce our relationship with government to nothing more than a straightforward financial transaction. He needs us to accept his view that taxes are extortion. Money unjustly and, quite possibly, criminally ripped from our wallets and fed into the gaping maw of an overweening and insatiable alien life force that serves no other purpose than to suck us dry.

We know better than that. Let’s stop falling prey to this nasty appeal to our worst instincts. It benefits no one in the long run except exploitive politicians bent on delivering us whole hog to the vagaries and indifference of pure, unfettered free marketry.

citizenly submitted by Cityslikr