A Bitter Victory

May 3, 2011

He was not answering his phone. Rain or shine, day or night, while sitting on the toilet conducting his daily constitutional, he answered his phone. So this was unusual.

It’s not like the evening had been a total failure. Yes, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seized the majority that had hung so tantalizingly close before their eyes just out of reach for the past 5 years. If you have any attachment to the notion of the positive role government plays in our lives, no good can come from last night’s results.

And being what my friend Donald calls an ‘unreconstructed Pierre Trudeau Liberal’, the party of my youth is not even the official opposition any longer. It is just officially in tatters. No one’s going to be talking about the ‘Liberal brand’ anymore without giggling mournfully.

Yet the NDP had scaled historic heights. A second place finish seemed to be merely empty boasting as recently as two weeks ago. By the end of last evening, however, the NDP were les rois du Quebec, nearly obliterating the Bloc in one fell swoop. For that, federalists of whatever stripe should be grateful. The party also managed to hold seats elsewhere and mounted their own assault on Fortress Liberal in downtown Toronto, taking out a few Liberal incumbents in the process.

So for that alone, I expected at least a modicum of ebullience from my colleague, the NDPisty of all of us. But he wouldn’t even pick up his phone. From past experience, I knew this to be a bad sign.

When I arrived at the office, the door was slightly ajar. I knocked. No answer. Popping my head into the darkened room except for the glow coming of the computer screen, I spotted the silhouette of Cityslikr, sitting at the desk. With a “yoo-hoo!” I made my presence known but still received no response. My rational side told me he was just lost in deep thought but part of me wondered, well, I’d seen too many movies with scenes just like this. A corpse still sitting upright, waiting to fall over at the slightest touch. It wasn’t like the man didn’t have a short list of people who’d vowed to kill him at some point of time or other.

I slowly but noisily approached him, still eliciting no reaction. The first thing I noticed was the half full (yes, I remain the optimist even in the darkest of times) bottle of Woodford Reserve. OK. So maybe he’d drunk himself into a joyful stupor. I mean, the Orange Wave had taken 100 seats after all. Conservative majority be damned. It was still an impressive feat.

Then I spotted the opened pill bottle. Picking it up from the desk with still no acknowledgement from Cityslikr, I checked out the label. Lorazepam. Oh oh. I leaned in for a closer look. His eyes were open but just staring ahead at the computer screen. Giving him a gentle nudge, I asked how many of the pills he’d had.

It wasn’t clear if he’d heard me as the question seemed to make no impression. The only sign of life Cityslikr exhibited was the slow blinking of his eyes, randomly and not always in unision. I began wondering if a call to 9-1-1 might not be in order. And then he spoke.

“Not nearly enough,” he said. “I was thinking of trying to sleep for the next 4 and a half years.” He continued to look at the computer screen. I followed his glance to see what, if anything, had so focused his attention. Sentences blinked on the screen in front of him.

In the end, we send our words and ideas into the void, Mafingo.

(Mafingo?)

 Into the fucking void to die a neglected death. Nothing to be done. Nothing to be done.

Yep. Our fearless leader had slipped into the dark recesses of a Beckettian induced coma. Clearly this was not the time for upbeat words and thoughts. He was nowhere near ready for that. Now we simply mourn. And how better to do that than a slug of some silky smooth bourbon to wash down the warm, pillowy embrace of a benzodiazepine? Warning: Do not drink alcohol while taking benzodiazepine. This medication can increase the effects of alcohol. Exactly.You know, it’s not the majority government that’s so hard to swallow although, it is a big, big, bitter, bitter pill for sure. Nor is it the collapse of Liberal support that’s dismaying. While much will be made of the vote splitting that gave the Conservatives many unintentional seats especially in Toronto and the GTA, I curiously await the numbers to see how many of those were caused by natural occurring left of centre, NDP-Liberal splits and those caused by rightist Liberals jumping aboard the good ship Conservative to try and stem the Orange Wave. Perhaps Liberals needed to purge their party of those types anyway. It’s just an ugly way to do it for the rest of us.

No, for me the really disheartening aspect of Monday’s election is the total lack of imagination and nerve on the part of voters who cast their ballot with the Conservatives out of fear and desire for stability. They bought into the dubious notion that parliamentary democracies can only function properly with one party in a majority position to make all the decisions. Here you go. Do your worst. And we’ll tune in again in 4 years time, see how you’re doing.

We had a golden opportunity by electing a third straight minority government (in whatever makeup) to truly change the political landscape of this country. To make it known to all the parties that this is what we wanted. We wanted compromise. We wanted consensus. So instead of working to undermine a minority parliament, all parties would have to properly deal with that new reality and perhaps put their own interests aside for those of the country.

Instead, we rewarded those who did everything in their power to discredit the idea of a workable minority government with unfettered access to the levers of federal power. Actually, fewer than two in five voters rewarded the Conservatives for their parliamentary treachery, somehow feeling that they’ve restored the natural order of things where one party garnering less than 40% of the popular vote gets to play with all the marbles. A skewed stability that disenfranchises 60% of the electorate. But no matter. We won’t have to bother to vote again for over 4 years!

This type of Conservative victory has set back voting reform at the federal level for another 5 years at least. Why would a majority government want to reform a system that benefited them greatly? While seat numbers weren’t far off their popular vote, the NDP may be likewise loathe to bring up the subject with the majority of their seats now in Quebec, a province that could see their political influence dwindle somewhat under a more proportionally representative system. Only the Liberals and the Green Party are left to carry that banner but their impact on the next parliament will be minimal.

In its place, the talk will be of uniting the centre left at least between the NDP and Liberals, and disfiguring our political landscape even further into an entirely contrived two party, left v. right, scenario. It’s just simpler that way, I guess. Because if there’s one take away lesson from the election campaign this time around it’s that voters are uncomfortable with complexity. It’s too difficult to follow and takes up too much of their time. Politics, as in any game, needs a clear-cut winner and a bunch of losers.I won’t always feel this way. Nor will my colleague, Cityslikr. We will bounce back. But for a few days anyway we seek to dull the pain of our ever growing misanthropy in a pleasant, totally legal, narcotic haze, telling our woes to our new best friend, Mafingo.

ativanly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


The Short Drive From Etobicoke To Brampton

April 30, 2011

Fealty to ideology above all else.

What other explanation is there for Mayor Rob Ford finally wading into the federal campaign to endorse Stephen Harper?

“Folks, so many people said: ‘Rob, why are you getting involved, you’re supposed to be non-political,’” said Ford at a Tory rally in Brampton last night. Umm, what? Who ever told the mayor he should be non-political during the federal campaign? In fact, there was an early push to get him to speak up for urban issues like the mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, was doing. I think what Mayor Ford is mixing up is political with partisan. But that’s pretty well par for the course.

The bigger question though is what the fuck the mayor was doing endorsing Harper in Brampton? I know that in his part of Etobicoke area codes may be 416 but hearts and minds pine for the 905. As Matt Elliott pointed yesterday in Ford For Toronto, Conservatives in 905 “… seem crazy for Rob Ford and the “stop the gravy train” stuff…”. (Think the line in Sweet Home Alabama, ‘In Birmingham they love the guv-ner’ and sing ‘In 905 they love the may-yore’. Kind of creepily fits, doesn’t it?) And federal Conservative hopes are pinned in ridings in that part of the GTA, so it makes sense from their end to have Mayor Ford pimping for them. What exactly does the mayor get in return, though?

So the Conservatives snag some suburban seats, enough even to secure a majority government, and if Mayor Ford is seen to have assisted in it, how is that going to help the city of Toronto? Newly installed 905 MPs, working for a government that has no urban agenda, are going to expend political capital fighting to help an NDP orange/Liberal red Toronto? I see a whole world of animosity not co-operation.

Maybe the mayor does too and that’s part of the motivation on his part to get involved. More anti-government crusading conservatives at the levers of power help create a wave of anti-tax and spending. Hey. If the federal government isn’t going to help out with social housing or immigration settlement costs, there’s nothing we can do. My heart bleeds for you but my hands are tied, folks.

Ideological thinking 1, city issues 0.

And if the mayor’s magic doesn’t work in the 905 like it did last fall in 416, and Ford Nation fails to sweep through the greater GTA? Well, no harm, no foul. I’m mean, he’s the mayor of Toronto after all not Brampton or Mississauga. He pitched in to help, even in the face of giving his own city the finger. So you can’t say he didn’t try.

Which may explain why the mayor didn’t insist on the Conservative leader coming right into town, at least once during the campaign. (A sidebar, yer honour? Wouldn’t you be a little offended if, as a mayor of a city, either offering up help or being asked for help during an election, and you didn’t even get the courtesy of a visit to your city? Might you not take that as a slight?) With apparently a couple seats in play here in Toronto, including Eglinton-Lawrence and right on the mayor’s turf of Etobicoke Centre, you’d think Mayor Ford would rally the troops there, in the alleged heart of Ford Nation. Imagine the coup of handing even one 416 seat to the Conservatives. How could that not count as a solid with expectations for an I Owe You One?

That’s the best case scenario for the mayor however, although perhaps not for the citizens of Toronto. Imagine the possible horror that might be inflicted upon us with a newly elected Stephen Harper owing Mayor Ford a favour. But what if the mayor threw his support for Harper at a gathering in his own backyard and didn’t deliver the goods on election day? The vaunted Ford Nation was powerless to turn the town Conservative blue. Might that be a sign that the Nation is no longer so vaunted? That maybe the mayor’s victory last fall wasn’t so much a trend as it was a one-off; a fluke of timing and circumstance rather than a country embracing its far-right, conservative roots.

Publicly backing the Conservatives right here in Toronto and having voters in the city ignore him might take a little swagger out of the mayor’s step and the mayor is nothing without his swagger. He couldn’t risk losing that but somehow still couldn’t refrain from stepping from the sidelines and wading into the federal fray despite there being no discernible upside for the city he purports to lead. The important takeaway message from that is to realize exactly where Mayor Ford’s interests lay. It’s all about self not about city.

Alabambaly submitted by Cityslikr


Election? What Election?

April 15, 2011

Admittedly, I did not spend much time in Mayor Rob Ford’s head. The discomfort was too bearable. It was all blindingly red, the colour of rage and perpetual indignation. At times so intense as to render me unconscious, only to be revived by the sweet smell of chicken wings.

So, I was never able to figure out just what is going on in the mayor’s mind that keeps him so mum about the ongoing federal election campaign. Here he has this bully pulpit which he’s not been shy to use to come down on his particular pet peeves like councillor spending, social housing, public transit and yet on pushing forth a municipal agenda, Mayor Ford’s been L’il Miss Demure. ‘Respect for Taxpayers’ has been as much as he’s managed to type out, allowing a grand opportunity to pass him, and us – and by ‘us’ I don’t mean just us in Toronto but the overwhelming majority of us who live in metropolitan areas throughout the country — by.

The need for such proactive measures has not been greater. Municipalities in Canada are facing increasingly dire circumstances, symbolized by a four year-old estimate of an accumulated $123 billion infrastructure deficit. This cannot be handled individually by nibbling around at discretionary spending corners and stopping the gravy train. As we heard at yesterday’s Who Cares About 15 Million Voters? (h/t @_john_henry @MartinProsperiT), Canada’s 19th-century governance structure does not enable cities to deal with the problems they face on their own. The numbers simply don’t add up.

And the timing could not be more propitious for our mayor to step up to the plate. His political stripe is no secret. The federal finance minister is a family friend. If polls and opinions are to be believed, there are actually some seats in Ford Nation that are in play for Conservatives. (NOW has 5 possibly up for grabs that could turn blue from red.) These could be the difference between a win and a loss, majority versus minority for Stephen Harper. So why isn’t the mayor leveraging this opportunity to highlight urban issues? More specifically, imagine the oomph behind his ask for help in building the Sheppard subway from the feds if he helped secure the Conservatives even 1 or 2 416 ridings for them. It would go a long way to re-election in 2014.

Could it be his silence is, in fact, very tactical? By pushing an urban agenda is there some concern about alienating the even more important 905 region? That urban-suburban divide that politicians in Ottawa (and Queen’s Park) so love to exploit to their advantage might flare up against them if they’re seen to be catering to the bigger cities. Perhaps the Conservatives have asked the mayor to remain on the sidelines and let them have it in the greater GTA. If things fall their way, then maybe there’ll be a little something in it for him afterwards.

Of course, it may be worth considering that the vaunted Ford Nation that the mayor threatened to unleash on Premier McGuinty earlier this year – and it will be interesting to see if Mayor Ford maintains his disengagement during the provincial election in the fall – may not be as vaunted as he hopes. What would happen if the mayor got all involved in the campaign and had little to no to negative impact on the outcome? It wouldn’t diminish his abilities to run the city certainly but it might poke a hole in the invincibility suit he’s been wearing since his election. And if the Conservative horse he backed didn’t win? His ability to bargain at the federal level might be lessened down the road.

Setting partisan campaigning aside, and wondering why Mayor Ford has refused to pick up the urban banner during this election, it may just be more ideologically based than anything else. To step up and demand federal government action in helping cities meet the burdens put upon them would repudiate everything that brought the mayor to power. Echoing the sentiments made by Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi admits to what the mayor refused to admit to his entire political career. Cities do have a revenue problem. If Mayor Ford gives voice to that idea, then everything he ran on, all the damage he’s inflicted on the city right now under the rubric of fiscal responsibility could be seen as unnecessary, mean-spirited and nothing more than pure politics.If that’s the case, if that’s reason for the mayor’s continued absence from the federal election scene, well, it’s as damaging as anything he could by being more involved. It suggests he’s looking out for his own best interests rather than those of the city. Respect for the taxpayers indeed.

questioningly submitted by Cityslikr


Diminshed Expectations Are Contagious

March 18, 2011

I have come to terms with the fact that our 4 dailies, most of the mainstream media actually, take a dimmer view of government than I do. For I continue to believe that our elected representatives act only as badly, goodly, cravenly, bravely, miserly or magnanimously as we allow them. Their faults are our faults. Their successes ours. At the end of the (election) day, governments remain accountable to the people and to the people only.

Yeah. I do actually believe that.

So most political coverage from our newspapers that comes across my desk I read with a mixture of anger, dismay, incredulity, angrier, disbelief, confusion, angrierer. (But not you, Christopher Hume.) It’s not that I simply disagree with much of what’s written. That’s a given. I just find it discouraging to think of the influence the discourse has on our political atmosphere. A disheartened atmosphere of No Can Do-ism and diminished expectations. Ask not what your government can do for you because it can do diddly squat.

So it was as I read Chris Selley’s piece in the National Post a couple days back, Let’s get diesel trains to airport on track Mr. Selley may have a tepid point with his analysis of the diesel vs. electric debate. Let’s take whatever we can to get a rail link between downtown and Pearson. Finally. It’s long, long, very long overdue. But isn’t it this grudging acceptance, this settling for something less, this sense of diminished expectations that has got us into our current transit mess in the first place?

Had the newly minted Harris government not experienced a failure of nerve or a failure to take the long view or just been less… oh, I’m so tempted to drop the c-bomb and add an ‘ish’ here but I’ll restrain myself… back in 1995, we’d already have a subway running along Eglinton Avenue. Fast forward 13 years, Premier McGuinty wavering in the face of a recession induced deficit and scaling back plans on funding Transit City, itself something of a We-Don’t-Have-The-Density/Money-To-Build-Subways compromise. The result? More delays and opening the door wide to the new mayor’s ridiculously under-thought out Sheppard subway plan that, whatever the outcome, only means even further delays for Toronto.

What happened to the time when our politicians marshalled an uncertain public to embrace the great unknown for the greater good? Like JFK sending Americans to the moon. I’m sure a very solid dollars and cents case was made why that wouldn’t be a good idea. Or (and I hesitate to go here, fearing that I may just be invoking Godwin’s Law which I only recently learned about from @jm_mcrath) back in 1939, imagine western governments worrying about the costs, both human and financial, of going to war with the Nazis? You know, the timing’s really bad. Winter’s coming. We’re still a little behind the 8 ball with this Great Depression-y thing…

Oh, right. We now have leaders marshalling an uncertain public to embrace bad causes for the lesser good. Like say going to war in Iraq. Deregulation. The debasement of government itself.

The strange thing is, we watch as the private sector nose dives into a near death spiral through mismanagement, criminality and irrational swings in triumphant certainty to baseless fear, only to be picked up, dusted off and sent back along their way with billions of dollars of government cash, yet still we lionize these titans of industry for their daring-do, spirit of adventure and risk taking in the face of daunting odds. Our politicians? Not so much. Just deliver the services we demand, don’t take too much money from us and try and keep quiet over there.

While no transit expert, I think the case for electrifying the rail link from downtown to Pearson is a slam dunk. Yes, the upfront costs are more but the general feeling is we will recoup that money through lower operational costs down the line. Electrification would allow more flexibility in terms of the numbers of stops along the way. There’s that whole concept of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. I know some of our electricity is coal generated but it is more flexible to future energy innovations (although there’s another front where our politicians are easily swayed away from green energy by dubious arguments). Diesel is diesel and electric trains simply make public transit a joy.

Mr. Selley does his argument a great disservice by blithely pointing out that the diesel trains Metrolinx has contracted to buy are convertible to electric as if it’ll be as easy as that. Slap up some wires, attach a couple of those rod thingies to the trains and we’ll be good to go. It’ll be a little more burdensome than that and, if history can be used as an example, the cost will be much higher in the long run than if we just electrified it now. (And while we’re in critical mode with this. Please, Chris. “If I worked downtown and was flying to London, I’d much sooner change in Montreal, or even Newark, than brave Pearson.” Seriously? A connecting flight rather than making your way to Pearson for a direct one? A little over the top, wouldn’t you say?)

But that seems to be what we do these days, make questionable claims to back up our demand for less bold measures from our governments. Bold measures are inherently risky, unpredictable and oftentimes don’t immediately pay off. It takes some courage to step up and see them through. If our politicians aren’t capable of such conviction, maybe it’s because we aren’t either.

boldly submitted by Cityslikr


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

March 4, 2011

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