Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Let Us Compare Mythologies

Whether intentional or not, Rob Ford built a mythology around his style and ethic as a councillor and mayoral candidate. He was the self-reliant man who didn’t need to use his office budget, the outcast on a quest to restore the city’s self-respect, heralding his nation toward change. It’s a powerful narrative, filled with understandable and potent metaphors.

Metaphors and narratives work in politics as they are abstractions of reality that reduce complicated ideas in more universal and communicable ways. So when we see the concrete actions of how this impact individual lives, people react more negatively. While Rob Ford built up a mythology for himself, that means that unpacking what the various myths are that lend him credibility can take away the authority he has over council and constituents.

In order to move away from Team Ford controlling the narrative, it’s necessary to debunk the myths that make it possible and move on to a more sustainable vision.

Myth #1: Rob Ford is Popular

This is likely the most important myth. In politics, popularity is credibility whether the policies earn it or not. For Rob Ford, his bad policies and governance style have caught up to his popularity.

According to a newly released Forum Research poll this morning, Rob Ford now has a 42% approval rating. Now this might not sound terribly bad at first glance; he won 47% of the vote and Barack Obama also has a 42% approval rating.

But it’s bad, really bad. A year into his mayoralty, David Miller had an approval rating that was over 80%. So did Mel Lastman.

People tend not to pay much attention to municipal politics which generates higher approval ratings (as the public give the benefit of the doubt). But for Ford to tumble so quickly from a 70% approval rating in May to 42% today is astounding. When did David Miller reach the 42% mark? At the onset of the garbage strike, six years after becoming mayor. We all know how that turned out.

As the Toronto Star’s David Rider points out, this is even during the recommendation stage before the actual cuts have taken place. It’s hard to see how he can turn around public opinion.

Ford frequently speaks of his mandate from the public to implement his agenda. At a certain point this political capital is spent and ideas must be sold to the public to gain buy-in and council acceptance. This is particularly true for items that were not campaign issues (the Port Lands, scramble intersections, the Fort York Bridge) and items that contradict his promises (no service cuts, not depleting capital reserves, keeping Jarvis bike lanes).   

Ford speaks about his historic mandate, garnering more votes than any politician in Canada. Yet he is historically unpopular for a Toronto mayor at this point, his downward arc as pronounced and sharp as his ascendancy.

Myth #2: Rob Ford is All-Powerful

This has been covered elsewhere, including in this fine assessment by Mike Smith.

While the idea that Rob Ford has only limited powers as mayor (more in the semi-strong mayor system) is out there, general public perception hasn’t changed from the idea that the mayor is a pseudo-dictator. Ford takes advantage of this perception gap in order to bypass Council and ‘cancel’ Transit City, unilaterally offer governance changes to the Waterfront model and even excludes councillors from reading reports such as the KPMG recommendations before they go to the media.

The worst part of this is that councillors take cover behind this myth. By essentially arguing, ‘well this is the mayor’s vision and that has to be respected’ councillors undermine their own agency and authority. Council is made up of 45 votes for a reason-- to respect the wishes of local constituents and act as a check on the mayor. The absence of leadership from councillors lends credence to the idea that the mayor is all-powerful and diminishes their own ability to enact change.

There’s a way around this though. By pressuring the mushy middle and other councillors to actively and persuasively promote new and positive ideas it demonstrates that Ford does not control all the levers of power at City Hall or have a monopoly on ideas. Councillors need to make themselves relevant and the best way to do so is for the public to shine a light on their roles and responsibilities. More on this in future days.  

Myth #3: Rob Ford is Making Tough Decisions

This myth goes something like 'Rob Ford is working hard, staying up all night listening to deputations and closely examining the budget to find savings. This isn’t easy, and it requires leadership and business savvy.' 

While the city has some tough choices to make in balancing its budget, Rob Ford isn’t making them. He promised to find waste and efficiencies through creativity, empowering staff and listening to insights from citizens. None of this has happened.

Instead, the proposals to balance the bulk of the budget are cop-outs. The idea that selling TPA and TTC parking lots or auctioning the Port Lands at firesale prices is the best way to find a budget solution is both misguided and shows a lack of dedication to finding real solutions.

Selling or using long-term assets to balance the operating deficit is wrong from an accounting standpoint. To use the household budgeting analogy the mayor’s allies like to use, it would be like selling your furniture to pay your rent.  It’s easy to do, but leaves you in a worse position next time.

You have to consider all possibilities. How can I optimize my investment? How can I generate more revenue in reasonable ways? What are alternative options? Which brings us to...

Myth #4: Rob Ford has a Vision to get the City on the Right Track

During the campaign Rob Ford made a lot of promises. Many of his supporters, when interviewed, opined that they felt he was the one who could provide the solutions for Toronto and repair a broken and out-of-control city.

Putting aside the disagreement that Toronto was broken and out-of-control under Miller, where are the new ideas? If the TTC needs to diffuse ridership from rush-hour to be more efficient, why not create a loyalty program that incentivizes riders to change habits as has been proposed here? Or why not explore a libertarian solution to accurately reflect the cost of parking, thus reducing congestion up to 30% and raising more revenue? Or why not explore micro-financing solutions (another conservative alternative) to enable property owners to invest in reducing water and energy consumption that is highly subsidized by the city in various ways? Andrew Coyne has advocated for two-tier traffic pricing on expressways. The idea has worked elsewhere and is supported in various ways like HOT lanes, as described in this CD Howe analysis (a conservative organization). It would reduce congestion for everyone and increase revenue. Is that worth exploring? Asking these questions and analyzing their implementation is the hard work of governing.

The thing is, Ford doesn’t explore ideas or consider possibilties (mega-malls notwithstanding). He also doesn’t enable people to offer solutions.

The executive committee deputations (or Citizen’s Filibuster) were meant as a response to the KPMG reports, not as a forum for new ideas. The people who did depute were dismissed as unionists, socialists or jobless (as if this should devalue their voice). The consultation survey was dismissed by Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong as ‘not statistically valid’.  

Ford’s governance is ideologically close-minded and the decisions are reactionary. Far from being the man with the plan to save the city, Ford’s means of operating are antithetical to any coherent and sustainable vision.


While Ford had a heroic and mythic quality to him during the campaign- that quest that inspired passion in a great deal of people- his actions so far debunk the mythic qualities ascribed to him.

Instead, he’s a different kind of mythic archetype. As his promises and metaphors are revealed to be empty he is not a folk hero but a trickster. The myths listed above are still sold to the public and councillors to sustain his image and ensuring he can pass his agenda.

The reality is he is none of these and his authority that rests on these ideas is questionable. By debunking the myth of Rob Ford the agency for citizens and councillors can improve. In doing so, the potential to shape reasonable and nuanced policies to impact positive change can become more of a reality. 

1 comment:

  1. Shhh... don't tell Royson James