An excerpt from Edward Keenan’s new book, Some Great Idea (with annotations by the author).
There are a lot of words that could describe Toronto’s recent politics—“frustrating,” “inspiring,” and “interesting” all come to mind. But the one that may seem most apt is “crazy.” In his new book, Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics, and the Invention of Toronto, The Grid’s Edward Keenan sums up the city’s trajectory since amalgamation by taking a close look at a long municipal history that includes William Lyon Mackenzie and Jane Jacobs, and somehow leads to Rob Ford. Keenan also attempts to see what that history can teach us, and where the city goes from here. In this excerpt, he describes some of the qualities we might need in a post-Ford leader.
Obviously, the experience of the Rob Ford clown show has made clear that a few traits are desperately needed in our next mayor: someone intelligent and articulate enough to understand policy discussions and meaningfully participate in them; 1 someone composed enough in his or her personal life to avoid providing a constant distraction from city business; someone with the political skills to respectfully, if vigorously, lead a debate among city councillors and find a consensus or make smart compromises to push forward an agenda. And, please, someone who won’t try to reverse all the decisions of the recent past 2 and instead will begin talking about how to move forward from where we are. Ford’s supporters—especially his former supporters who lament his personal failings—talk a lot about “fiscal responsibility,” and clearly a big part of his appeal is the belief that we need to spend within our means. This is a fine message, and as far as cutting perks like staff parties go, it maybe bore emphasizing for symbolic reasons at the very least. But the emphasis on cutting waste and inefficiency is actually shared across the political spectrum. David Miller and Shelley Carroll’s final budget in 2010 cut about as much spending by finding efficiencies as Ford and Mike Del Grande’s 2013 budget does.
Meanwhile, it’s important that the next mayor be aware that fiscal responsibility includes not just parsimony but reality: The need to pay for things, and to raise the revenue to pay for things, is unavoidable. Toronto cannot continue to enjoy a level of services that are the envy of the province while paying tax rates that are among the lowest. There are more ways to raise the money we need than just property taxes. Sales taxes, parking fees, vehicle-registration taxes, road tolls, and even income taxes are all possibilities that either the city or the province could implement, and all or most are used in other large North American cities.3
Yet raising taxes or government revenues is always a tough sell, here and everywhere. But making a tough sell is what we need the next mayor to do, on many fronts. Here’s the thing, though: salespeople don’t just shy away from the cost of things; they also emphasize the benefits and value the customers get for their dollars. And when it comes to our taxes and what they can and do buy, we need a mayoral candidate who isn’t afraid to talk about the ways investments in infrastructure, public services, and smart planning will directly benefit residents. When I visited the mayor of Markham, the cost-cutting conservative Frank Scarpitti,4 in the honest-to-goodness outer-suburban 905, he talked about how the affluent executives who live in Markham scramble to pay premium fares whenever new rapid-bus services or express GO-train lines are added. He bragged of the urbanist infrastructure and cultural amenities he was investing in, because the current residents of Markham, and the residents he hoped to attract as the city grows, recognized the value of those things in making their lives better.
Good politicians can convince people, rather than just packaging their existing opinions into slogans. We need that kind of politician as mayor, someone to lead public opinion rather than catering to popular, ignorant prejudices. And not just when it comes to the budget and taxes. Because if the next mayor is going to be successful in curing what ails Toronto, he or she will need to speak to—and for—the city as a whole, rather than lining up on one side of the downtown-suburban divide that has come to define our politics since amalgamation.
The various areas of the city can all be made better and stronger, and the recipe for strength might be different in each place, depending on the situation they’re in right now. And so while some things, like mass transit, need to be handled on a city-wide or even region-wide level, the needs of each neighbourhood are not universal, and there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for improving livability. For a mayoral candidate, uniting the city through its diversity doesn’t mean finding a way to convince residents in Kensington Market or Woburn or Yonge and Eglinton or Rexdale that they need to sublimate their needs to the greater good; it means talking with residents of each of those neighbourhoods about what specific things will make the city they live in stronger, and making those residents a part of making it happen.
On Jarvis Street, say, residents might say making it safer and easier for them to bike to work is a priority. On Brown’s Line, making it easier to bike to reliable transit could be more viable. In some neighbourhoods, smart mid-rise development could make housing more affordable and create a population density that could make possible a more vibrant retail area. In other neighbourhoods, introducing more commercial and industrial development might do the same thing. And so on. Ultimately, the most livable parts of the city need to become more affordable and the most affordable neighbourhoods more livable.
A lot of people studying the situation in Toronto have called for ways to make the mayor’s office stronger5 —either by granting more power to the office or through the introduction of a formal party system, making city council function more like a parliament where a mayor with a majority government would function the way the prime minister does. I can see the appeal of both of those suggestions—and I can see how, in theory, a more powerful office would likely attract a better calibre of candidate. But I also think those ideas are mistaken. The relative weakness of the mayor, and his or her need to build a majority issue by issue with city councillors from every part of Toronto, is a feature of our system, not a bug. It certainly makes getting things done more difficult, but our system also means that the diversity of the city is expressed in our politics, and that democracy is more than a once-every-four-years thing: It’s a constant process played out at every council and committee meeting.
I hope that council, for the rest of this term and beyond, remains aware of the power it has, collectively—a power that it demonstrated in standing up to Rob Ford. In a city as diverse as Toronto, and given our proud history of resisting the whims of powerful elites, it’s entirely appropriate that at City Hall, final authority rests in the quarrelling, often chaotic, collective—not in the hands of any one person or office.
But that means, too, that our next mayor must win the confidence, from the beginning and at every stage thereafter, of the councillors who represent the varied and far-flung neighbourhoods of the city. There are many ways to build a working consensus among an ego-driven group like Toronto city council—persuasion, compromise, and old-fashioned horse-trading among them—but those routes all lead to the ability to govern, while the alternative leads to frustration. I’d note, though, that the most effective tool is popularity: If a councillor believes the mayor has the support of his or her local constituents, the mayor will almost always have the support of that councillor.
And so whoever wants to lead the city next will need to be able to communicate with the residents of the various areas of the city—communication works two ways,6 and it is equally important in both. The next mayor will have to listen to and understand the concerns and priorities of residents from across the entire city, downtown and suburbs, north and south, east and west, and give voice to those concerns and priorities in ways that help people elsewhere in the city understand and appreciate them. And the next mayor must also be able to inspire and persuade voters from every corner of the city with a vision of the next stage of the city’s growth with benefit to all of us, together.
All of that, I’m sure, sounds like a wish list—and it is. But these are the qualities the city needs now in a mayor, and if we get someone 7 with at least a handful of these abilities, I think they can both win an election and lead the city into a better future. Of course, it’s possible that someone—possibly even Rob Ford—will instead win by cynically pitting one part of the city against another again, playing down our real needs and playing up our differences, trying to turn Toronto’s diversity into a weakness. I hope we’ve moved past that, and the city’s history makes me confident we have. But after the past several years, very little in Toronto politics could surprise me.8 Even in the event that we do reward another divider, though, the city’s history also makes me confident that our strong city council and capacity for citizen activism will again limit the damage, and eventually turn us towards progress.
Excerpt adapted from Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto by Edward Keenan. Published by Coach House Books. $14.95. The book launches with a free party at Lee’s Palace on Jan. 24 at 8:30 p.m.
1. —Subways, subways, subways is not meaningful. It’s just not. [^]
2. —Let’s just let sleeping plastic bags lie for a bit, okay? [^]
3. —Chicago, so beloved by the Ford Bros., has a regional transit sales tax! [^]
4. —See my “How the 905 stole our urbanist mojo” feature from early 2012 [^]
5. —See the paper by André Côté of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School issued just this week, which finds it a compelling suggestion. [^]
6. —As they say, we have two ears and only one mouth for a reason. [^]
7. —Either in a by-election this year or a regular election next year. [^]
8. —No one I know predicted David Miller would win in 2003, and no one I know predicted Rob Ford would win in 2010. Elections around here are often surprising! [^]