What’s News With You?

Sometimes the most astonishing aspect of news isn’t in the headline or the fine print, it’s the priority we give to certain stories.

Last month I was in Victoria, the capital of our third biggest province.  On the front page of the daily paper I read that an octopus had attacked a bald eagle in a nearby fish farm. 

It struck me as odd that this got so many column inches in that government town.  It displaced provincial issues as well as international calamities like the British election, Brexit, Boris, and the resulting claymore rattling among Scots nationalists.  The octopus-eagle story pushed the Punch-and-Judy impeachment show in Washington down the page, along with a half dozen simmering trade wars, real wars, and the quickening climate change countdown in Australia. 

Obviously, the octopus-eagle story had metaphorical value, like one of Aesop’s fables.  This tale of a proud national symbol, dragged down by a slimy sea creature, may have been felt to contain unspoken insights about the perplexing human dramas it replaced.  Even CNN ran the video in parallel to its 24-hour coverage of the House Judiciary Committee. 

If so, it’s a very adaptable metaphor.  For Americans of any political stripe, it’s a handy, almost literal analogy for whatever evil they think has put their nation in decline.  The octopus can stand in for almost any threat to almost any cherished social or political norm. 

Still, despite being vaguely and irresistibly evocative, that doesn’t make it front page news and I’m not sure how the metaphor holds up when stretched to its limit.  After all, the eagle was rescued by a Canadian fish farm worker with a barge pole.  How does that fit into the GOP, Dems, or Progressive narratives?   Let someone else figure that out. 

For some reason, the video reminded me of George Bush Jr.’s brilliant quote about marine ecosystems:  “I know that the human being and fish can coexist peacefully” Yes, he said that out loud. 

What would Bush have said about this?  If a lowly cephalopod can nail a soaring raptor, what hope is there for mankind.  Maybe we can’t co-exist in peace.  Maybe they’re coming for us now! 

Also, of doubtful news value, but deeper in the page count that week, was the revelation that cities like Vancouver and Toronto desperately need to raise property taxes.  Like the octopus attack, this was surprising, not because it’s true, but because until now a bunch of self-serving civic leaders seem not to have known this.  

So, what’s the real story here?  It can’t be that taxes are necessary, nor that lazy and weak politicians’ campaign and govern as if they’re not.  The real news is that they have deluded enough voters to get elected, over and over again, without delivering on the tax funded work they’ve promised. 

It’s easy to blame the public for going along with the fiction of tax-free public works.  What was once common sense was drummed out by the anti-tax mantras of both neo libs and cons who talk about taxes as if ashamed that all governments fund themselves by collecting taxes.    

I remember mocking Toronto’s current Mayor for pledging to create plentiful affordable housing while resisting tax increases.  In a headline he penned for himself in the last election he assured us that he’d lead change in the direction of standing still by assuring us that he wouldn’t raise taxes to the level required by his promises. In effect, this was an absurd promise of great new capital works, accompanied by a financial guarantee that that the status quo would persist.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, this put him in league with our then nearly dead Mayor, who Tory defeated in 2014.  The departed Rob Ford also vowed to keep taxes low while spinning fantasies of fabulous construction projects.  Ford was elected as a tax fighter in 2010, but by 2014 was promising “Subways!  Subways!  Subways!” to win support in Scarborough.  Subways, for anyone sharing the past and present Mayors’ confusion, cost billions of dollars, and one way or another, those dollars would come from tax payers. 

Tory more than matched Ford’s foolishness.  He well surpassed it.  He promised even more subway spending while insisting that development charges and provincial funding would cover the cost of this empty promise.  It wouldn’t require new taxes, he explained.  Yet even he had to know that provincial funding, in the main, comes from Torontonians’ taxes, and that more would have to come from Torontonians pockets.     

Is it too unkind to point out that it shouldn’t have been necessary for Tory to outbid Rob Ford to win that election?  By the time Rob Ford had been replaced by his unprepared brother in 2014, he was disgraced and deathly ill.  Likewise, was it necessary to stake out the affordable housing issue after Jennifer Keesmat introduced it in 2018 when Tory was already the prohibitive favourite? 

It was almost pitiably weak and lazy of him.  He was reduced to one-upping Ford with the voter’s own money, and imitating Keesmat’s concern about a housing crisis he refused to fund.  Yet he he’s never more vigorous than when screwing up, so it’s hard to pity him.   Which brings us to last month’s revelatory moment when Tory realized that a big tax increase is needed to pay for his big promises. 

If you’d believed him in 2014 or 2018, you’d feel a little betrayed now.  To dupe voters in 2018 he swore that, if returned to office, he’d “lead in ensuring that property taxes increases are kept at or below the rate of inflation for the next four years.”  Then, just one year into this four-year commitment, he solemnly declared that he “will not as Mayor carry on the old practice of just postponing investments, sometimes indefinitely” and broke his oath on taxes .

The “old practice,” he refers to, was actually his own.  Just as it had been his clumsy predecessor’s practice to get elected by promising tax-free capital works, Tory refined and amplified these contradictory notions until they won endorsements from Toronto’s main media outlets, and later from a majority of the electorate.

Now he sees that the premise of his two mayoral campaigns is implausible and has come out in favour of raising the tax revenue he needed all along.  Should this come as a surprise at the end of 2019?  Is this news?

It’s news like the octopus-eagle story, the eagle being pulled below the water by the octopus’ weight, admitting the force of gravity with his last, noble, bubbling breath. 

But everyone else already knew about gravity, didn’t they? Didn’t the eagle?  Yeah, he knew.  He can fly.  He defied gravity every day of his life.  It wasn’t until he had a heavy, red octopus draped over him that he finally admitted the reality of this elemental force. And that’s what happens to politicians.  If they’re promiscuous with their promises, they risk sinking under the weight of them. 

The fish farm workers rescued the eagle because they felt sorry for it.  But have no sympathy for the tax-denying politician, snared in the tentacles of delusion.  The sooner they sink, the better. 

What Tory calls the “old practice” has, in many jurisdictions, for many election cycles, been the only practice. Politicians blame the victim for this.  They’ll argue that people don’t like taxes, so to get elected they must promise something for nothing.  However, if you continuously promise something for nothing, as Ford and Tory did, the electorate may be forgiven for believing that the only apparent option is therefore a plausible option.  Media endorsements only legitimize this falsehood. 

Elections are intended to choose leaders.  Leaders are not mere agents of voter desire.  Leadership entails the motivation of people to act on a shared purpose, not just to gratify those who clamour loudest.  It is a failure of leadership to promise what can’t be accomplished, and that’s exactly what’s been happening.

In Toronto it explains how the fully funded LRT system Miller left us with in 2010, to be completed in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015, got entangled in the tentacles of a huge, unfunded promise and dragged down by a subway that delayed results by a decade – so far.  On a broader scale, this behavior translates into massive infrastructure replacement backlogs currently handicapping economies in jurisdictions at every level across Canada and the United States.

These are monstrous octopi that keep growing all the time.  For example, the Toronto District School Board has a $4 billion repair backlog.  This is an organization that looks after the wellbeing of our children, yet the provincial government has neglected the maintenance of schools until the accumulated capital need is significantly greater than the entire annual operating budget.  If you listen carefully, you can probably hear echoes of last year’s Conservative election promises about the quality of education yet won’t hear much about appropriations to clear the school repair backlog.

That’s another reason why the octopus and eagle fight seems like front page news.  You can see and hear eagles.  Like campaign promises, they can be soaring and spectacular.  Octopi, like unfulfilled tax obligations. are silent killers.  They rarely surface.  It’s ominous when they do.

It’s understandable how tempting an empty spending promise is to lazy and dishonest politicians.  I only single Tory out because he makes it so easy.  There are plenty of other examples.  Look at Rob Ford’s brother, Premier Doug, committing to hospital construction plans across the Province during the election, but choking off the funding and stretching out the project schedules to make the books look better and minimize tax implications.  If he’s committed to building the hospitals then he must think they’re needed, but when they’re needed, they won’t be ready. 

The federal government illustrates the point too, suffering criticism from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for slow walking Parliament’s commitment of infrastructure spending.  While promising and allocating billions of dollars, the FCM thinks the federal Liberals have been more energetic about announcing projects than about writing cheques to complete them. 

Wait!  I’m starting to understand why the octopus and eagle were on the front page of the Victoria Times Colonist.  I’ve talked myself around 180 degrees and realize that my starting position was exactly wrong. It’s all coming clear to me now:  The eagle flies, the octopus grows, and on the rare occasion that they meet, it deserves to be the lead story.  In fact, it should by on every page of every paper, not just in Victoria, but across the country. 

And if a day goes by when an eagle isn’t in reach of an octopus, we should level the playing field.  We should have buckets of octopi and slingshots ready to acquaint them in the air.  Once in the grip of the suckers who voted for them, those high flyers can contemplate the gravity of their promises and pray that someone with a barge pole is willing to save them (metaphorically, I mean).

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