Going Our Way?

April 5, 2012

While the cat’s away, we will take about something other than municipal politics today.

Gaze averted for the past year or so from the train wreck that has become the Ford administration, I’ve been keeping myself occupied with the goings-on at other levels of government. Not that there’s a whole lot more to commend from that view either. But at least it lends one a different perspective.

Which is (Segue alert! Segue alert!) what this country is slowly, incrementally facing, a changing perspective. The Albertazation of Canada, let’s call it where the government is the problem not the solution, taxation is a dirty word and all economic problems can be solved by digging into the ground below your feed and mining the resources.

Or as Erna Paris wrote in a Walrus article from March of 2011, “The New Solitudes”: … an outlook more familiar to Americans than to Canadians, at least since the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. Its organizing principles are a powerful commitment to individualism, and to maximum freedom in every sector. Governments should be small, their powers limited, their taxing capacity curtailed. The market must be free and unfettered. Individuals are uniquely responsible for their failures, as well as their successes, and they cannot expect assistance from the ‘nanny state.’

A twist on an old theme, the two solitudes revisited. No longer English and French with its healthy dose of disregard for those here before any European set foot on these shores. But a new division, grounded in western alienation that may be less geographic than it is philosophical. It’s not that Alberta ever wanted in. They wanted the rest of Canada to be more like them.

Or maybe it’s nothing more than sour grapes written from the heart of what was once the economic engine of the nation. The tables have turned. Power has shifted. Money talks, baby, and these days it’s the west with the deep pockets, Canada’s sugar daddies. The new payer of the piper gets a different tune played. If you want to keep dancing, you better learn the new steps.

Not so fast there, bucko. There’s nothing radical going on here. It’s simply business as usual. What we’re witnessing from this long feared stable Conservative majority government is little more than a slightly bluer tinged Chrétienism.

Take last week’s federal budget for example. Nothing out of the ordinary, no draconian hidden agenda. The new normal. Nothing to see here, folks. Everybody back to work.

You see what just happened there?

It is now taken as a simple matter of fact, plain as the nose on your face that government deficits and debt are due to excessive spending. On bailouts and stimulus spending during the global economic crisis. On pensions and other outrageous luxuries afforded to those not willing to do an honest day’s work in the private sector. We are all now true believers in the Rob Ford maxim that governments have a spending not a revenue problem despite all evidence to the contrary here in Toronto.

Buying into that mantra, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in Ontario instructs Don Drummond not to even consider new taxes as a way of helping to alleviate the provincial deficit. This is a spending problem, remember? Tell us how to spend less not how to generate more revenue.

The flip side of this leap of faith, this embrace of the Alberta way, is that low taxes, cutting taxes creates a robust economy. It’s that simple, people. Although the Ontario government in its recent budget put off further corporate tax cuts, it was seen as a concession, a sop to keep the NDP happy rather than an admission that having slashed the rate over the last few years has generated little economic benefits to anyone but those businesses now paying less tax.

Lower personal income tax rates and the reduction of the GST at the federal level have also proven to deliver somewhat illusory economic benefits. Yet there’s nary a mention of that in much of the budget coverage. Little analysis to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy blowing in from the prairies. Taxes are bad, evil even to some minds. End stop.

No, the only way to turn this ship around, to build a sustainable economy, is to dig our way out. Addition by extraction. Ontario? Quebec? Stop expecting handouts from the rest of the country and get mining. There’s gold (of something else valuable) in them thar hills. Drill, baby, drill!

You see, according to the Alberta way, green may be good in theory but terrible in practice. Where’s the money to be made in wind, solar? Ontario’s very tentative baby steps in that direction have proven to be a bust to those inclined to view alternative energy with scepticism. Nothing more than a vain hope in the eyes of the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson.

Never mind what’s been going on over there in Germany, say. That country propping up the European economy at the moment. Its embrace of solar and wind power has helped turn around moribund manufacturing areas in the former east bloc parts of the country. In just 12 years, green energy went from contributing 6.3% of the country’s energy output to now over 20%, creating over 300,000 jobs in the process.

Hmmm, revive a flagging manufacturing base. Reduce dependence on unsustainable fossil fuel sources. Seems like a win-win strategy to those not wedded to the Alberta way.

Unfortunately, there’s little boldness in leadership in that direction currently. Politicians of all stripes have accepted the handcuffs of fiscal restraint to dampen expectations of new ideas and nip any discussion of charting a new course in the bud. Hewers of wood and drawers of water we once were. Hewers of wood and drawers of water we shall continue to be.

Those of us demanding something different are now another solitude, looking forward rather than backward. With a majority federal government intent on reshaping the country and its institutions bit by bit into a decentralized, corporate-minded, neoconservative plaything, we may have to take the prime minister up on his offer to seize more regional autonomy and assume control of our future. A future divergent with the Alberta way. That, to borrow Erna Paris’s title, is our new solitude.

sneakily submitted by Urban Sophisticat


The Bold And The Beautiful

October 13, 2011

It’s difficult to reconcile being in a room full of articulate, passionate and fully engaged Torontonians for about 6 hours or so and the state this city finds itself in currently. I mean, if we’re facing such seemingly intractable and menacing issues, why aren’t some of these people in charge? After all, they can’t be that busy. Here they were, taking an afternoon to talk to the likes of us.

So it was yesterday as I sat in attendance in the Baillie Court auditorium at the AGO for a symposium, Imagine Toronto, that kicked off the launch of The Toronto Project followed by a Walrus sponsored debate, Be It Resolved That Toronto Will Never Be Beautiful. The room was packed with bright stars both on and off the stage, exchanging ideas, expressing hope (guarded), concern (sincere), outrage (very, very palpable). David Crombie moderated the afternoon session that featured 10 takes on the essence of Toronto, past, present and future. There was author-professor-philosopher Mark Kingwell. From the Maytree Foundation, Ratna Omidvar. Author-editor-stroller, Shawn Micallef. CivicAction‘s Naki Osutei. Rahul Bhardwaj talked about Toronto’s worrisome Vital Signs but remained surprisingly upbeat. Architect Wayne Kuwabara. Visual artist Shary Boyle tore up the place, beseeching the audience to imagine a Toronto that embraced itself and its artists proudly rather than half-heartedly. Writer-activist Dave Meslin called for more community, grassroots engagement in our political process.

That was all before the evening’s entertainment had begun.

One crossover between the day’s two meeting of minds was journalist John Lorinc. His cover article for the November issue of The Walrus magazine, Where Toronto Went Wrong, has been the talk of the town since it came out and was the cornerstone of both gatherings. No, folks. Things didn’t suddenly go south when Rob Ford became mayor. Even the enforced amalgamation foisted upon us by the Harris government and the subsequent downloading and bailing of responsibilities by Queen’s Park cannot be pointed to as the only culprit although it certainly served as a key role in how things are playing out here presently. Weaving a historical overview, Lorinc writes about how for every positive step the city leaders and their provincial overlords took, such as the creation of a two-tier system of regional governance with the formation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1954, there were two steps back like, well, the undoing of Metropolitan Toronto in 1998. (Amalgamation didn’t have to include the elimination of the metro level of government.)

My take on the whys and hows Toronto ‘lost its groove’ can be distilled in two points Mr. Lorinc makes in his article.  “Unfortunately, Toronto’s history is filled with examples of high-minded plans for open spaces that were crushed by its deep-seated disinclination to invest in the public realm.” Four paragraphs later he writes, “Such not-so-benign neglect, borne of a culture of stinginess, has been a long-standing element of Toronto’s DNA.”

Our leaders have suffered from a severe aversion to boldness, masked in an embrace of parsimoniousness calling itself fiscal prudence. Not only have we allowed them to conduct their business in such a fashion, we’ve encouraged it, demanding low taxes before civic amenities. ‘Need-to-haves’ over ‘nice-to-haves’ to use Mayor Ford’s words.

A ‘stinginess’ with money infecting a ‘stinginess’ of spirit. No to a Yonge Street subway in 1912 because of its price tag, repeated some 80 years later when Mike Harris buried the hole already dug for an Eglinton Avenue subway. The costs too rich for our blood that would haunt and saddle future generations with a significantly higher amount of money needed to think big on matters of transit. A history of here and now closed-mindedness and fistedness.

Remember a few months back when Councillor David Shiner killed plans for the Fort York bridge because he thought it ‘too fancy’? A miserliness of thinking handed down from his mother, Esther Shiner, Spadiner Shiner, who led the charge to extend the Spadina Expressway from where it had been stopped in its tracks at Lawrence Avenue down to Eglinton Avenue. The so-called Davis Ditch which, among other proposals was one from Buckminster Fuller that feature a mixed use development atop the Spadina subway extension. Instead, we got Allen Road. Anyone who’s ever tried to negotiate that intersection on foot, bike or even a car knows the price we paid for that.

We have inherited a short-sightedness in terms of money that never seems capable of taking in the bigger picture. A deficit of boldness that always means passing the buck, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes, oftentimes, a penny saved is not a penny earned. It’s just responsibility deferred.

To be bold means more than strictly adhering to the bottom line. Down the road, money you think you’ve saved just accrues, collecting interest that will have to be paid by someone else. Not doing something because it seems unaffordable now may seem noble and conscientious and shows Respect For The Taxpayer but in many cases, when it comes to building a sustainable, liveable, just city, is nothing more than a refusal to govern. It isn’t even caretaking. It’s obstructionism. Politicians priding themselves in that would do us all a favour and step out of the way. As I witnessed yesterday, there’s plenty of people ready to offer up solutions and ideas to get Toronto back on the right track.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr