Doug Ford goes on TV and gives blatantly false information about the budget. What do we do about that?
I was waiting to see if CP24 would post the video of Doug Ford’s post-budget-day appearance on Monday night, but it’s not up on their site yet, so I’ll have to paraphrase some bits from memory. I was there in the studio, as Jonathan Goldsbie and I had done a segment talking about our thoughts on the budget. We both sat in the Green Room with Councillor Ford for a very uncomfortable segment—uncomfortable because he refused to exchange small talk or even make eye contact with either of us—watching lefty councillor Joe Mihevc give his take. Then Mihevc joined Goldsbie and I in the Green Room to watch Doug Ford’s bit.
It’s one of the great sadnesses of my year in journalism that Doug Ford refused to speak with me while I was writing this profile of him earlier this year. At the time, he seemed to hold a good deal of sway in his brother’s administration, and I was interested in him as a person and a politician. I was hoping to get a sense of what Toronto looks like through his eyes, and what the circus at City Hall looked like to him as a newcomer who’d suddenly become the ultimate insider overnight, as a man used to running the family business who was now in a sort of family business-style government, and to be able to share that sense with readers. I tried to do something similar when Rob Ford was a councillor in 2006, and I found our now-mayor refreshingly forthcoming and straightforward back then, willing to let me ride around with him and see what the world looked like to him. Still, his brother would not return a single call or email.
Anyhow, one of the things I’ve consistently put in the positives column for Doug Ford is his tendency to bluntly tell it like he sees it on many occasions. It would be wrong to say I admire him when he says he’s comfortable closing libraries and he doesn’t care about Margaret Atwood, for instance, and wrong to say that he seems to me to be basing his opinion on a full understanding of the facts, but I do respect the honesty he displays in those situations. If we’re going to have a conversation as a city about our level of library service and funding, “I don’t see why we need all these libraries” is as good a place as any to begin that conversation. It lets everyone know what the actual subject under discussion is (the need for libraries and how many we should have) and puts the onus on the other side to articulate the essential premise of its position. If you have strong opinions, there’s something worthy about voicing them plainly and weathering strong disagreement rather than dressing them up in bafflegab so your opponents are confused.
But that Doug Ford did not show up to CP24, and I fear that after a year of being a walking controversy magnet, we may not see the blunt-talking Doug again. Just as, since the election, we have almost never seen the plain-spoken, open-book Rob Ford I wrote about in 2006. Talking points have replaced talking straight.
For instance: Doug Ford told Stephen LeDrew that the reason the city is suggesting $88 million in service cuts is to avoid a 30 per cent tax increase. It’s a line we heard a lot of this year. It was always a transparent political fiction, but at least back when the administration was suggesting a three-quarter-billion-dollar shortfall in the budget, it made some semblance of sense. It was somewhere adjacent to plausible, as a piece of spin. But now that we’re actually looking at the budget, and we see that by Ford & Co.’s own numbers, the shortfall we need to make up through tax hikes or service cuts (or drawing on reserves) is $88 million, this goes from disingenuous spin to complete absurdity.
How hard is it to see through this claim? Well, let’s do some grade-school math: The current budget suggests raising property taxes by 2.5 per cent. According to Rob Ford and his budget chief and the city manager, this will raise $57 million. So in order to cover an additional $88 million shortfall, the city would neet to raise taxes by another… 4 per cent. So in order to avoid any program cuts—and this is assuming that there is no way to cover that balance besides either raising taxes or cutting programs—we would need a total 6.5 per cent property tax increase.
So Doug Ford, according to the numbers his brother is putting out, is overstating the tax-increase option’s impact by more than 450 per cent. Why is he doing that? Or, rather, how is he getting away with doing that? The question I’m asking—right now—is not whether we should raise taxes by 6.5 per cent or cut services, which is a fine debate to have. But what I’m asking is why Doug Ford can and does just put forward blatant falsehoods rather than engage in that discussion. This is not high-level math. The numbers are all right there in his brother’s budget.
A few minutes later, in the same discussion with Stephen LeDrew, Doug outright denied that the city would be cutting Wheel-Trans service for the ambulatory disabled. “Not at all,” he said. He claimed that, in fact, such service would be increased. In the Green Room, Joe Mihevc flipped to page 18 of the budget presentation (PDF) and pointed—”Right there!” he said. “Wheel Trans. remove exemption from eligibility criteria for ambulatory dialysis patients ($5M),” it read in the budget notes. So either the budget as presented contains a very significant $5 million error, or Doug Ford was insisting on something that is not true.
Every politician and activist engages in spin. They state the situation in ways that make their argument look favourable. The other day, cycling activist Dave Meslin pointed out to drivers on Twitter that removing the bike lanes on Jarvis would reduce the number of dedicated car lanes. Those councillors who wanted to save all 44 Community Environment Days painted those who wanted to eliminate them as somehow enemies of the environment (rather than as people who questioned the effectiveness of those events as tools to serve environmental goals). Sometimes the spin can be entertaining, sometimes it is even enlightening, sometimes it is enraging. But what Doug Ford was doing on CP24 was not spin. It was either lying or, in the most charitable interpretation, being dead wrong.
The conservative David Frum, who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush (he’s laid claim to “Axis of Evil”), has recently parted ways with the U.S. Republican party over Tea Party policy. In a recent essay about his estrangement from fellow conservatives, he wrote, “We used to say ‘You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.’ Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.”
You cannot have a real debate if some of the key players insist on making up their own pseudo-facts and pretend information. You just cannot. The debate over whether taxes are too high is an important one, and there are reasonable, informed opinions on both sides. The debate about whether the city should be, or needs to be, providing the services it does in the ways it does is an important one, too, and reasonable opinion is divided. All kinds of hyper-informed people, experts even, have different takes on the structural soundness of the city’s financing, and equally diverse views on how to stabilize those finances. As a journalist and a citizen, I am actually very interested in those debates, and people who think I’m a raving pinko might be surprised at how open-minded I am about the possible best answers to those questions. I think we need to actually have the discussions and look at the alternatives before we settle on what the most desirable or workable solutions are. Vigorous, honest debates would be an excellent thing for Toronto.
But the ruling clique at City Hall is not engaging in those debates. It is just inventing numbers and facts out of thin air, and spreading that growing pile of fictions as an argument to the general public. Some large percentage of the general public believes them, and a large percentage believes that since one side is claiming one thing (30 per cent) and another is claiming another (6.5 per cent), then the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. And at some point, hearing these wildly divergent sets of alleged facts, a big percentage of the general public simply concludes that all politicians are liars and washes its hands of the entire system. This is corrosive and anti-democratic. And I have no idea as a columnist and a concerned citizen what, other than pointing to the truth as often as I can, to do about it.