Rob Ford’s been in a musical mood recently, lending his street cred to Drake’s big rebranding attempts for the Raptors and heading to Austin to promote Toronto’s music scene. But he’s also made time to sing a familiar tune, raging about wasteful government spending. First it was a Toronto Sun story about a year-old City Hall purchase of $75,000 worth of replica designer chairs for the councillors’ private member’s lounge. And just as the sting of that outrage was wearing off, he re-upped in reaction to another Sun report, this one detailing that executives with the Pan-Am Games organization are drawing mid-six-figure salaries.
There’s nothing new about that, of course. Ford has been thundering about eye-popping spending decisions since before he was elected. In fact, he rode that Gravy Train all the way to the mayor’s office: Did you hear the one about the bunny suit? How about the one about the retirement party? Or that classic tale about the person who gets paid to water the plants at City Hall? Of course you heard them. Those anecdotes made up roughly half the words Ford spoke during the 2010 election campaign.
What’s different is that now when Ford rails about how the guy in charge is letting spendthrifts run up the taxpayers’ charge card, he’s talking about himself. He got elected by promising to put a stop to what he considers wasteful spending, but three years into his mandate, it seems the most he can do is stand around screaming about all the wasteful spending he reads about in the Sun. Plus ça change….
Whether the chairs and the games organizers are a big waste of tax dollars isn’t the issue—I haven’t looked enough into the details of either expenditure to make up my mind. Ford certainly knows at a glance when something seems like an overpriced indulgence—the stuff headlines are made of—and these items fit the bill. But here’s the thing: If Ford is correct, then what he’s ranting about in this case is his own total failure to achieve the primary objective of his mayoralty.
This persistence of problems Ford promised to solve has become a theme. Take the city’s affordable-housing agency. In 2011, the city auditor reported on spending and procurement problems at Toronto Community Housing, so Ford blew his stack and fired all the board members that he himself had just finished appointing. Two years later, auditors are again investigating spending problems at the same organization. Meanwhile, Ford tours that agency’s apartments and emerges to complain about cockroaches, overdue repairs, and intolerable living conditions, just as he did when he was a lowly city councillor. And while he blusters on, he continues to cut costs, and the repair backlog at the agency keeps climbing.
Pick any high-profile case: Ford made delivering good transit to Scarborough a key plank in his platform. Three years into his term, we’re still fighting about what to build there, and projects that were supposed to be completed by now may not be done until 2020, if at all. And how about customer service, which Ford promised to emphasize? Well, the negative reports from Ombudsman Fiona Crean keep coming—since the spring alone, we’ve seen how TCHC wrongly evicted tenants, how the TTC was spying on Wheel-Trans passengers, and how non-profit agencies were “met with a litany of failures” in dealing with the city. That last report, appropriately enough, was titled, “Promises made, promises broken.”
Over and over, you see the same thing: Ford still flagging the same issues he identified three years ago, with no solution in sight. The reason is that he’s very good—undeniably so—at channelling outrage at symptoms, but he seems incapable of diagnosing the disease, and even less able to find a cure. It’s easy to insist someone who’s been wrongly overspending should be fired, but harder to manage the system so that overspending doesn’t happen and the right thing is done as a matter of course. You must see the big picture and have a vision for how the whole government will operate, and that is something Ford has never possessed. Worse, he doesn’t seem aware it’s required.
About the chairs, he’s said, “I take full responsibility.” And yet it appears he will campaign again as the solution to the overspending he is admittedly responsible for. He can see the specific problem, but here, as in so many areas, he is oblivious to the larger one that is causing it.