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December 2, 2013

Toronto’s Municipal Mess: Ford Brothers Coralled and Austerity Saved

by Roger Annis

Rob Ford

A special meeting of Toronto City Council was convened in November to deal with the city’s ‘Ford problem’. It was the most bizarre chapter yet in the scandal surrounding Mayor Rob Ford.

The meeting was convened by city councilors to adopt measures to reduce the power and financing of the mayor’s office. The council majority used to support Ford, but the man has become a liability for business interests in the city. They need to rein him in to save neo-liberalism’s austerity agenda for the sixth largest jurisdiction in Canada.

Toronto City Council does not have the power to remove Ford. But it does have the discretion of asking the province to do so. However, concern over a pro-Ford, right wing political backlash as well as the fact that many city councilors support Ford’s austerity and anti-working class police prevent the council from turning to the province.

The meeting was mission accomplished—for all intents and purposes, the deputy mayor, Norm Kelly, a member of Ford’s austerity caucus, will now head the city. But the corralling of the mayor was accomplished at the price of enduring another embarrassing, bruising confrontation with Ford, his city councilor brother, Doug, and their supporters in the visitors’ gallery.

The circus that day was described well by Postmedia’s Christie Blatchford. Toronto Star columnist Royson James also described some of the proceedings. Here is a flavor of the day’s proceedings as James described it:

With his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, playing Terminator to the mayor’s Rambo, the fearsome twosome give every evidence that local politics could deteriorate from weeks of comedy to months of tragedy.

Over the past few rancorous days, the Brothers Ford teamed up to try to intimidate councilors as they voted on sanctions against the mayor. They have threatened to disrupt council, filibuster on issues to shut down city business, and given every indication that the mayor won’t shrink away and seek help for suspected drug and alcohol addiction.

On Monday, while councilors debated the motion stripping Ford of his powers, the mayor walked over to the crammed public gallery and taunted citizens. The act created a ruckus and Speaker Frances Nunziata recessed the meeting.

You are a disgrace,” one citizen shouted. “How do you know Anthony Smith, you lying scumbag,” another shouted, referring to the man captured in a posed photo with the mayor in front of a residence police describe as a crack house. Smith was later slain in a downtown gun attack.

You are the scumbag, you little punk,” Doug Ford shot back. And on and on it went…

The mayor told the meeting that its measures to restrict his powers are akin to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. “You have just attacked Kuwait,” he said. “This means war” in the 2014 mayoral election, he declared.

The millionaire Ford clan is unfazed by all that has taken place since revelations began pouring out earlier this year of the mayor’s substance abuse, his associations with criminals, and his personal conduct that would arguably have a normal citizen facing criminal charges. On Monday, the clan made clear that it is charging ahead with future political plans, however dodgy such prospects might appear today.

Mainstream media commentators and many capitalist politicians are appalled by the ongoing spectacle in Toronto and the damage to the image of the city. Columns by Postmedia’s Andrew Coyne and the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson summarize well the dismay. The Fords’ conduct is beginning to worry business interests in tourism, information technology, professional sport and elsewhere that their bottom lines may begin to suffer.

The federal government is unmoved by the spectacle and is staying out of the fray. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet colleagues from Ontario were strong backers of Ford in the 2010 municipal election that placed him in office.[1] The mayor returned the favour by campaigning for them in the 2011 federal election that delivered a Conservative majority government.


The Ford phenomenon

The rightist Ford says he stands for the ‘common man’, against the rich. He recently told Fox News, “There’s more poor people in this country than there are rich, and I stick up for the poor people.”

He couples that with rote repetition of the austerity mantra of successive Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa. Ford told his one and only episode of ‘Ford Nation’ on SUN News television four days ago, “Am I perfect? I’m not perfect. But I’ll tell you what I am perfect at – watching taxpayers’ money, creating jobs, stimulating the economy.”

Like the Tea Party south of the border, the Ford clan in Toronto is an instrument of the decades long, now, capitalist offensive against the working class and society as a whole. A key policy of that offensive has been government austerity (see a Nov. 4 article in Rabble.ca on Ford’s policies by writer Jesse McLaren).

Austerity wins support from some sections of the working class and middle classes out of ignorance and the erosion of social solidarity. All this is fueled by growing economic precariousness, perceived material stake in the system through such mechanisms as home ownership and stock market-based pension plans, and by the failure of the existing parties and social organizations of the working class to challenge the policies and ideological underpinnings of austerity.

Ipsos Public Affairs recently combed through voting and polling results in Toronto and it conducted a poll from Nov 7-11. Senior Vice President of IPSOS John Wright described to the Toronto Star what the company learned. Rob Ford is most popular in the boroughs of York and East York, where 30 per cent of voters say they’d support him. Next comes Scarborough, with 27 per cent, and North York, with 22 per cent. These are among the poorest districts in Toronto. The poll revealed that city wide, depending on the lineup of candidates, Ford would win 20-25% of the vote if he runs for mayor next year. Another recent poll, by the Toronto Sun, has him at more than 30% in a future election.

The Star report further explains:

Wright says the hard-core supporters of Ford are predominantly people with lower-income and lower education levels. Some 44 per cent of respondents who don’t have a high school diploma support Ford, while only 17 per cent of those with university degrees do. People who make less than $40,000 per year are twice as likely to be part of Ford Nation than those who make $100,000 or more, according to his tables.

Ford Nation is also slightly more concentrated in the young and the old. Some 22 percent of respondents aged 18-34 still support Ford, as do 24 per cent of those over 55. Only 20 per cent of voters in the 35-44 age bracket support Ford…

Wright says Ford won election by combining his Ford Nation voters with higher-income and better educated people, a group he’s now “lost completely.”

According to Postmedia’s Michael Den Tandt, ‘Ford Nation’ is an evolving “chimera” that may still have political legs. He goes on to explain:

Over the past three decades, people living in the populous, fast-growing hinterland of the Greater Toronto Area[2] have gotten poorer. J. David Hulchanski, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies, quantifies this in a report called ‘The Three Cities Within Toronto’, which he based on federal census data to 2006.

Hulchanski found that between 1970 and 2005, the proportion of Toronto’s middle-income neighbourhoods (which he defines as having incomes less than 20 per cent above or below the metropolitan average) shrank from 66 per cent to 29 per cent in 2005. The proportion of high-income areas — 20 per cent or more above average — grew marginally, to 19 per cent from 15 per cent. The number of low-income neighbourhoods, with incomes more than 20 per cent below average, grew to 53 per cent, from 19 per cent. The growth in the third category is astonishing. These areas are overwhelmingly in the GTA’s vast northeastern and northwestern corners, where Rob Ford enjoys his strongest support.

Just to be clear, austerity gains its strongest support from the well-to-do classes. In Toronto, they have no shortage of mayoral candidates to whom they can now switch their political allegiances. The Globe’s Jeffrey Simpson describes what he estimates as a 30%, hardcore Conservative Party support in Canada. He says, “For them, public policy is almost exclusively about paying lower and lower taxes, while, of course, demanding the same level of services. As long as their leaders deliver on that promise, or keep talking about delivering even if they don’t, this is the prism through which all is judged.” (Actually, Simpson’s 30 percent figure is a tad misleading; the Conservatives are supported by just 20% of the adult population.[3])

An aspect of the Ford story that has received little comment is the science-and-facts-be-damned political context in which the Conservatives and the Fords operate. By any social or environmental measure, globalization and austerity policies have failed massively to meet human needs. But brute force and ideological and political obfuscation keep them alive and well. Rational observation and measure of outcomes does not figure in.

This political context is further polluted with the prevailing, anti-scientific and anti-social climate policies of big business and big government. Canadians are now bombarded with advertising and government messages saying that the country’s climate-destroying fossil fuel industry is a big success story, including in ‘protecting’ the environment.

The image of a poor, boorish, uneducated and socially uncaring base of support for the Ford clan will gain traction as the Fords persist. It is inaccurate and politically dangerous. It should be challenged. The best way to do that is to organize on social need issues in these communities and challenge the policies that underlie the Ford phenomenon, which tie it closely to the globalization, austerity-promoting and climate-wrecking federal government.

Roger Annis is a writer is a retired aerospace worker and writer in Vancouver. He publishes a website called ‘A Socialist in Canada’.

Notes:

[1] See these two articles on the ties between the federal Tories and the Ford administration in Toronto: Rob Ford enablers: The strategists, by Andrew Coyne, columnist, Postmedia, November 16, 2013; and PM Harper has hug-a-thug program for the mayor of Toronto, by Tim Harper, columnist, Toronto Star, Nov 18, 2013

[2] In 1998, a right wing government in Ontario amalgamated the city and boroughs of metropolitan Toronto to create a much larger City of Toronto. Previously, the city center and each borough had their own municipal council and they also sat on a metropolitan council that oversaw transit and other city-wide services.

[3] Simpson is referring to ‘registered voters’. According to a check of population by age figures and 2011 voter registrations figures, about nine percent of Canada’s adult population does not register to vote. Taking unregistered votes as well as registered voters who do not vote into account, Conservative support in the 2011 election was 21% of the adult population (18 and older). Sixty one percent of registered voters cast a ballot. The last federal election to have a greater-than-70 percent registered voter turnout was 1992, at 72%.