a different kind of mayor

To choose Jennifer Keesmaat as the next mayor of Toronto, you would ordinarily compare her virtues to her rival, John Tory.  But these are extraordinary times.  Despite a roaring economy, Toronto’s government was already in a delicate condition and is now under full siege.

The newly elected Premier has some scores to settle against a city that rejected his leadership when he ran to become its mayor in 2014 and again when he ran to become its premier in 2018.  The impression left by those rejections, like the impressions he left on Toronto City Council, remain fresh and deep.  During his one term at Toronto City Hall he missed role call two thirds of the time, and when he actually participated in Council or committee discussions, he was dismally uninformed.

His term on Council coincided with his brother’s Mayoralty.  He was often angry about the perceived lack of respect his brother received during his stint at the helm.  Although his brother was offensive to almost everyone, with his crack and booze-fuelled insults to women, minorities, and other councillors, he has since been beatified in the Ford family liturgy.  The long illness and premature death of the then-Mayor has erased now-Premier Doug’s memory of his sainted brother’s many sins.

He also remembers his father’s disdain for the city when, as part of the Mike Harris government, Doug Ford Sr. helped force the five former cities and regional government through the chute of amalgamation and into the current state of dysfunction.  Now the son purports to improve on his father’s work by undermining an already weakened structure.

It won’t stop there.  After City Council is carved down to size, the Province will seek other changes to the relationship between City Hall, Queen’s Park, and the people.  A transfer of transit authority from the TTC to Metrolinx will be next.  The barbarians at the gate will demand another rewrite of the rules determining when and how the Province can overrule municipal planning.  The siege will be relentless for the full four years of Ford’s term.

So, the next mayor will have to contend with a provincial government that is led by someone who doesn’t like the city.  This mayoral term will be unlike any before.  Queen’s Park will be trying to change how Torontonians govern themselves and how City Council works to give people a reasonable degree of control over life in their communities.

There will be little room for bargaining and few points of leverage against the Fordies and former Harpies running Queen’s Park.  The situation requires a special kind of mayor.  The time for conciliation and appeasement is gone.  The lines of conflict have been drawn.

The best mayor for Toronto will be the one that can make the strongest stand against the Premier and his ideologically driven advisors from the federal PC party.  Logically, that would be someone who has an opposed perspective, drawn from a different experience of life.

I’ve remarked in the past on similarities between John Tory and the Ford brothers in reference to specific policy issues and, more generally, their aversion to evidence-based decision making.

Look, for example, at Tory’s response to Ford’s decision to eliminate city councillors and electoral wards part way through a municipal election cycle.  He could have pointed to an extensive study and consultation process that recently justified raising the number of councillors from 44 to 47, rather than shrinking it to 25.  Toronto has been growing, not shrinking after all.

He could further have pointed out that Ford determined 25 to be the magic number without any study or consultation and indeed without any idea how to implement this change in the short time remaining.  But, like Ford, Tory instinctually avoids the encumbrance of evidence in his decision making, and after dithering a bit about the pros and cons of shrinking council, advocated a referendum.  In his mind, the remedy for a hasty, ill-considered, and unfounded decision by government is to avoid blame by asking voters to make it, as if they have more time, better information, and judgement than he and Ford have.

Let’s quickly tally some of the attributes Ford and Tory have in common:

  • Both are white, Anglo males of a certain age
  • Both were born into wealth
  • Both were raised in single unit dwellings with big lawns
  • Both were employed by their fathers upon graduation
  • Both have led the provincial Conservative party
  • Both have campaigned unsuccessfully to be the Mayor of Toronto
  • Both are allergic to evidence-based decision making

Bet you can’t name any two other people with biographies that overlap in such specific ways.  Frankly, with so much common experience, it’s no surprise that their views on law and order, subways, freeways, taxation, etc., are substantially aligned.

Does it make any sense to send a man of this background and disposition to Queen’s Park as champion of Toronto’s interests?  Tory and Ford may disagree on style and policy details, but even on the issue of council size, they aren’t that far apart.  Tory has been heard to complain recently about his need for more power and less time in debate.  Reading between the lines, he shares Ford’s view that the mayor’s authority is diluted by the many – too many – voices heard in debate.

Fewer voices, less debate, and more mayoral power is a result Tory might have sought from Ford had not the Premier decided this, on his own, in utter secrecy, without any input from party officials, cabinet, or, heaven forbid, the Conservative Mayor of Toronto (honestly).  Tory’s surprise could not have been more complete (honestly).  On this, the Premier and the Mayor are adamant (honestly!).

One further point of similarity is their small “c” conservatism.  It’s hard for conservatives to pursue visions other than those they’ve acquired from the past.  Anyone who objects to that generalization must explain how anything can be conserved if it has not yet come into being.  That is to say, you cannot conserve the future, only the past.  It defies language and logic to say otherwise.

Even a “progressive” conservative hearkens to an idealized past for ways to mitigate the acknowledged inevitability of change.  All political parties can be characterized by how they balance considerations of past and future in their policies and programs, and those adopting the name and mission of conservatives have a stronger appreciation of the past than those defining themselves as political “progressives.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this conservative instinct not to throw out babies with the bathwater, unless the scummy water and soft soap is kept too long or the babies are left soaking until they develop body hair and start demanding iPhones.  More to the point, if both the Mayor and Premier are in the same tepid tub of ideas, little room is left for ideas about a better future.

This is why Jennifer Keesmaat will be a far better advocate for Toronto than John Tory could ever be.  If you differ with the Ford idea of what makes Toronto work and, as is evident from the 2014 and 2018 elections, most Torontonians do, you must elect a mayor whose ideas differ from Ford’s.

I’m sorry if that seems obvious to the point of rudeness, but I emphasize it because Tory and the Fords have always received undue deference from the media, despite the lack of fresh, forward looking ideas.  Someone has to point out that these emperors have no clothes, and they better do it soon.  No one wants to witness the spectacle of a re-elected Tory marching up University Boulevard to Queen’s Park, naked but for his soup-pot helmet and trash-lid shield, to fence with pork swords in the privacy of the Premier’s office, until a secret accord can be struck on the future of Toronto.

Now consider the Keesmaat candidacy, please.  She comes from a different place and time, with a different understanding of gender, wealth, and privilege.  More importantly, her perspective on the issues of the day relate to a desired future, not a golden past that is fading like sunset in the minds of the favoured few who enjoyed it most.

That’s the difference between a planner and a conservative.  One strives to accomplish the best that can be, while the other strives to recover the best that was.  Clearly, we’ve had enough of short-sighted incrementalism in city government under Tory and the Fords and are overdue for a change of vision.

Don’t doubt the power of these abstract differences to alter the realities of government.  Jennifer Keesmaat tried to provide Toronto with sound planning under both Rob Ford and John Tory.  Both ignored her advice, rejected her evidence, and deformed plans to satisfy their political needs.  Put her in office and think how profoundly different Toronto’s prospects will become.

Torontonians are paying for the Fords’ and Tory’s disregard of planning and other experts, with billions of dollars in avoidable project costs and decades of avoidable delay.  And when Rob Ford’s successor, Doug, grapples with dithering John to see who controls the future of Toronto, you’ll wish you’d elected someone with the intelligence, expertise, and perspective of Toronto’s former Chief Planner.

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