By creeps and clowns – Toronto going forward

I delude myself about our ability to deliberate, decide, plan, and act.  This sequence of steps sounds so logical, it’s absurd to do otherwise. Yet we often talk the talk, without walking it.

Maybe the military has the rigor to pull this off, maybe sports teams, and occasionally corporations follow their intentions through to execution, but in politics and government, almost never.

Today the Toronto Star published an endorsement of incumbent Mayor, John Tory.  It conceded that he tends to fail by half measures but concluded that his inoffensive demeanour and aversion to conflict are right for our times.

Our times, by any measure, are prosperous but fraught.  Tory’s overdue and overpriced infrastructure projects have emptied Toronto’s piggy bank just as social needs demand a greater share of resources.  Affordable housing supply is inadequate.  People are starting to shoot each other more frequently. Cars are hitting pedestrians and cyclists with similar regularity.  Traffic congestion, Tory’s number one priority four years ago, is worse than ever. Taxes, which he pledged not to increase faster than the rate of inflation, have been raised through a 30-year transit levy, required to pay for the transit plan his campaign team drew up for him during the 2014 election.

During Tory’s last term, Toronto has become the most expensive city in Canada.  Although it is prosperous in the aggregate, there are huge disparities in wealth and opportunity.  Poverty abounds.  Visible minorities and recent immigrants are sidelined.  Ninety-four percent of people under the age of 24 can’t see a future for themselves here.

Brooding in the background is a hostile Provincial government that has already eviscerated City Council and commandeered control of subway planning.  These are just the opening gambits of a legislative term that has three and half years yet to go.

It was this perilous relationship with the Province that justified much of the Star’s support for Tory. Because he isn’t a visionary, because he has no provocative ideas, because he wants to be liked, the Star’s bosses concluded he could deal with Premier Ford better than Jennifer Keesmat.

Stay the course.  Steady as she goes.  The wind's at our backs.

Really?  I have three problems with this reasoning.

First, you can’t deal collegially with a bully like Ford, especially if you have Tory’s reputation for conflict avoidance and appeasement.  You must apply political pressure by appealing to your own powerful constituency, and by leveraging relationships in the federal government.  You find points of pressure and cause pain, all the while shaking hands and smiling for the cameras.  It’s a war; a gentile, undeclared war, but a war nonetheless. You don't send a trust fund kid in short pants to confront a brawler.

Second, the City needs a vision.  Ask Tory what he’s doing and he talks about meetings, plans, and studies.  Any material progress on anything he’s “led” is long overdue, and being overdue, pertains more to the past than the present or future.

There are people in Toronto who desperately need things to change, and Toronto’s economy desperately needs these people.  Although procrastination may comfort the comfortable, like the Toronto Star executives, the persistence of problems like housing, transit, and safety give many people more to fear from the status quo than from radical change.

Third, the pleasantly avuncular demeanour of Mayor Tory persists among his corporate and conservative friends and colleagues, despite getting everything wrong on the critical issues of his first term.  Police leadership and carding, freeway modifications and transit planning, affordable housing and shelters, are fair examples.  A lab rat, with a brain the size of an olive pit, would have got the cheese on at least one of these choices.  If Tory had flipped a coin for each decision, he might have got half of them right.

Yet he makes his mistakes in the most deliberate manner.  The Star seems to be consoled that Tory’s placemat transit plan, promising 22 stations, paid for by developers, has in four years shrunk in scale to six stations, and swelled in cost by billions of dollars.  When he says that it’s the best we can do, I’m inclined not to believe him.  Indeed, on every file, Keesmat offers a better alternative, but the Star endorses Tory nonetheless.

Think what this means in terms of the governance and management steps I opened with:  deliberate, decide, plan, and act.  The Star endorsement suggests that Keesmat has the edge in deliberation, and planning, given her proven professional skills in those areas. Tory is believed to be more effective at funneling divergent viewpoints into a decision, and implementing that decision, regardless of evidence or opposition I would argue.

Here’s the point that The Star’s endorsement ignores about this.  Effectiveness in deciding on the wrong course, and stubbornly following the wrong course, is far worse that ineffectively pursuing the right course. “Ready.  Aim.  Fire.”, will always work better than the “Fire.  Aim. Ready.”, even if the shot falls sometimes short of the mark.  One approach to government reliably produces waste and chaos.  The other assures the prospect of a good result.

Yet, The Star seems to embrace the failure it knows over the success it desires.  I watched the YouTube video of The Star interviewing Keesmat.  The editorial team’s boss, Andrew Phillips, broadly misstated her views and asked obliquely misdirected questions.  A few others nervously pressed her on details of her plans, without inviting explanations of the broad concepts Keesmat, as a planner, has mastered. Maybe print journalists are nervous in front of a camera, but their hesitation to engage with Keesmaat in a grown-up dialogue surprised me.  They didn’t really seem curious about how and why her plans might work and how sharply she differed from Tory on principles.  Only Ed Keenan and Heather Mallick expressed interest in the fundamental differences between Tory’s incrementalism and Keesmat’s ambitions for Toronto.

So, it was frustrating to see more column inches dedicated to Keenan and Mallick’s muted endorsements of Keesmat than was dedicated to the endorsement of Tory on the editorial page of the same edition.  While they politely implied that Tory was yesterday’s man and that Keesmaat grasps the future, their superiors commandeered prime editorial real estate to advocate for the status quo.  Despite all evidence, the unchallenging, unambitious, and unaccomplished Tory was still their choice.

Maybe The Star has the chosen the right man for the wrong job.  If the job is to make them feel comfortable about the pace of change, the affirmation of old assumptions, the conduct of politics as usual, then Tory is a fine choice.  However, the City of Toronto has real, urgent, fundamental problems, and is subject to disruptive external pressures, not least from the blonde beast prowling Queen’s Park.

Is it that we need comfort most when we can afford it least?  When circumstance threatens the status quo, do we fear the loss of familiar problems more keenly than the desire for solutions?

Or can Toronto embrace change, making evidence based decisions that allows us to effectively plan and manage our responses to the threats and challenges of tomorrow?  The Star gives us one answer.  I’d hoped for the other.  Unless the polls are wrong, The Star is right.

But is it right because the public agrees, or because the media presents the disappointments of the past as the only sensible choice for the future?  With a foreshortened campaign and Tory dodging debates, the public is more reliant than ever on a press corps that seems to quell the progressive voices within it.

Once again, the comfortable will be comforted, while the desperate despair.  Keesmat is right.  We can do better.

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