By Jim Harding
I’m mayor of one of Saskatchewan’s many small communities. On the surface our community couldn’t be further from the realities facing Toronto but I’ve wondered recently whether small communities might have any useful advice for Mayor Ford?
I won’t add to the sensationalizing of this now international, reality TV-like story. Ridiculing Ford for his weaknesses and deceit isn’t very helpful, nor are the populist stereotypes of the “elites” and liberal media that he and his core supporters perpetuate. But it is tragic to watch someone being undone by self-abuse and abuse of power.
It’s easy to see Ford as an embarrassment and call for him to resign and enter treatment. But we must also seriously think about what this scandal, on top of the scandals of the senate and PMO, is doing to our country. Saying “God bless Toronto” at the end of a half-baked confession admitting continual deception of the voters doesn’t nullify the fundamental breach of trust.
Ninety percent of Canadians are following this story. Many are asking how a crack-using, alcohol abusing, threatening person who hangs out with the “underworld” can get the top job of Canada’s largest city? While we’re at it, perhaps we should also ask how someone hostile to the pursuit of scientific and political truth and the processes of parliamentary accountability ends up in the country’s highest office. Will we perhaps find that the scandals are interconnected by the new, non-progressive conservative’s sense of entitlement, of being above the law?
Ford sat on council for three terms before becoming mayor. His father was elected with the Harris Conservatives who made huge tax cuts and amalgamated greater Toronto spawning today’s polarizing politics. Many tendencies now full-blown were evident early but people didn’t effectively stand up to the Ford family’s tactics which included favouritism and intimidation. Political critics were framed as being fiscally irresponsible even if they weren’t and the clannish mentality we have come to associate with George Bush, that “you’re either with us or against us”, took hold. Ford Nation was born.
Such right-wing identity politics which attacks opponents as political elites to divert attention from substantive criticisms undermines democratic accountability. There is reason why the rule of law evolved hand in hand with political democracy. Ford’s clinging to power shows how democracy is vulnerable to the politics of anger, deceit and intimidation. Hypocritical “law and order” politics is being used as a cover for deregulation and lawlessness; we also see this in Harper’s handling of the senate-PMO scandal.
It’s important for both democracy and sustainability to figure out how these destructive political dynamics develop. Stereotypes and ridiculing of big city politics won’t help; nor will a holier-than-thou attitude. Small communities which experience similar underlying realities have their own useful insights.
Our communities, whether large or small, often have businesses that exert special influence on local politics. Sometimes this is through the “back door” or through informal networks. Sometimes an influential family business gets one of its own elected. Little transparency, local economic influences, low voter turn-out and name recognition can all contribute to governance favouring particular economic self-interests rather than the greater public good.
People with emotional and addiction challenges do enter local politics, as we see in Toronto. There can be instances of aggressive and threatening behavior, behind-the-scene rants and attacks on other elected officials, as part of an attempt to bully. Simplistic ideology, miscommunications and ignoring the views of others can sometimes make local politics nasty. Double standards and breaches of due process can be buried through conflict-avoidance and even fear. Our communities can lack moral leadership and well-intentioned but compliant people can become enablers of the bullying. Bullying behavior is not healthy for anyone involved nor for our democracy.
Democratic governance really suffers when it’s run like a patriarchal family business. The language changes from “voters and citizens” to “consumers and clients”. People become beholden to those controlling the purse strings and the democratic processes required to involve the whole, diverse community are weakened.
This has obviously gotten out of control in Toronto. The Ford family watchword is “trust nobody” and if necessary they circle the family wagon. Maintaining these caricatures of “family values” requires political deceit, manipulation and sometimes extortion. The realities around Toronto’s highest office are starting to mimic gangsterism, pursued in the name of conservative populism. Voter beware!
CBC’s Fifth Estate programme on the Fords suggests a double standard over the years. People turned their heads as one after another public “indiscretion” occurred. Recent police surveillance found Ford’s friend and driver continually calling the mayor while searching for the infamous crack video. Only the friend got arrested and charged. When the police chief announced that a drug raid had located the video that the Toronto Star journalists had seen and Ford denied existed, Ford’s enforcer brother turned on the police. Even so it appears the police have judged the mayor by far less stringent standards than those used on others involved in this messy affair.
Ford continues to get special political treatment; his family friend and Harper’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s only advice is that he should “make a decision about what he ought to do.” In the crunch, tough accountability is for everyone except those in the political clan.
MATTER OF SCALE
But these aren’t only Toronto’s problems. Toronto’s size probably helped these processes get so entrenched that when Ford came along, with his family’s connections to high places, enforcing accountability became more difficult. Ford’s folksy populism obscures a lack of transparency and cover-ups. This is how politicians can misinform and manipulate the electoral base to hold onto power. They can use sympathy, that they are being victimized, as a way to marshal further grass-roots identification.
It’s incredible that Ford supporters have said that as long as he makes tax cuts, what he does in his “private life” is his business. One defender insinuates, “…anyway we don’t really know what other councilors do in their private lives.” The separation of private and public here is not in the service of protecting rights but power. Insisting on speaking at Toronto’s Remembrance Day celebrations, as if his title would protect him from his declining credibility, is mistakenly interpreted by his core as further standing up to the elites. How far can this charade go?
Big cities have enough media that there is a better chance of persisting with an investigation despite the abuse being dished out. In smaller communities, a lone paper which may depend upon advertising dollars of family businesses that are concentrating regional wealth isn’t as likely to have the resources or stomach to pursue leads.
The angry, other-blaming politics used both by Ford and Harper, of which we can perhaps see examples in our own community, takes us further into the immobilizing quagmire we associate with U.S. politics. No wonder their comedians have had such a field day; we have righteously believed that political decadence is peculiar to Americans. It is not!
But it’s wrong to blame Toronto’s political decadence on the immorality or scale of big cities; we all know that the tendency towards double standards and even lawlessness goes right down to our smaller communities. The mantra of tax cuts and placing ‘corporate-property rights’ above the greater public interest is now used everywhere to evade a transparent analysis of fiscal realities and social needs and to cover up power plays that can approach the criminal.
My advice from a small community to a big city mayor is to step aside; make room for Torontonians to create effective ways to ensure their government is not so vulnerable to deceit, intimidation and extortion. Then the rest of us may get added encouragement to pursue this in our own communities and for the country as a whole.