Wednesday, 18 January 2012

2012 Budget: The Day After

Photo: Deborah Baic/Globe and Mail
Yesterday the budget happened and it's tempting to paint it with all kinds of significance. It's the kind of day that creates an easy narrative of absolute heroes and villains, but it's important not to get too caught up in the moment and lose context; the budget is part of a greater process that represents evolution, not revolution. 

First of all, how it happened. Rookie Councillor Josh Colle introduced an omnibus cuts bill two hours into the proceedings that protects: the school based child care rent subsidy, child care centre programming, priority centre youth programs, ice rink funding, pool funding, CPIP community grants, funding to shelters, reverses user fees on children's, youth and older adult programming in priority centres, adds $5M to the TTC to limit route cuts and also protects mechanized leaf collection.  

The $15M worth of cuts this motion protects was most of the $19M council's opposition won in the end, and Colle was painted as a hero for his work. Much of this is deserved in part for his willingness to stand up and advocate for the motion in the face of strong opposition from Ford allies. Giorgio Mammoliti accused him of engineering the motion for 'pet projects,' (even though there was little of anything in his ward), Speaker Nunziata editorialized comments about Colle's Dad Mike, the MPP for Eglinton-Lawrence, John Parker accused him of not answering questions directly (which is true), and Doug Holyday lost his cool and accused him of horse-trading.

Colle, who has been an infrequent speaker in Council (which many have surmised is because of the Mayor's opposition to the Lawrence Heights project, just passed in November) handled his own quite admirably which only seemed to cause further frustration on the Mayor's team. 

While this moment surprised many City Hall watchers, myself included, it was in the works for a while, as David Rider reports in this excellent piece. From this piece it seems the left wing of the newbies in the mushy middle (McMahon, Bailao, Colle and Matlow) grew sick and tired of the budget process in December and sought to find ways to protect services. Working with the stalwarts on Council's left, they knew they would have to get two of Jaye Robinson, Michelle Berardinetti, Gary Crawford, Gloria Lindsay Luby and James Pasternak (in addition to the increasingly frustrated Chin Lee). 

It was the latter two who took the plunge. For Luby, mechanized leaf collection was a dealbreaker for her in Etobicoke and protecting it was necessary for her support. From Inside Toronto:

"'(Leaf collection), for me, was absolutely important. Some of the other services (included in the motion) were not, but, you know, if I get support for leaf collection, I have to support them," she said. "It is what it is, but we definitely did a good thing for the City of Toronto...I had one chap write and say 'you rock.' I don't often get that'

Pasternak was likely a tougher sell, as there were a series of less prominent cuts that had an impact on his ward. According to Rider's article, Robinson and Berardinetti were lobbying for Pasternak's support right until the end and even the mayor confronted him. Various staffers mentioned that the amount of pressure the likes of Pasternak were under from the Ford administration was unprecedented in their experience.   

While Colle was the public face of Council's middle to protect the cuts, Pasternak took the biggest leap behind the scenes to make that happen.

For Luby and Pasternak, it raises some interesting questions. On the one hand, they'll gain some credibility among their constituents for protecting services, which a CUPE poll released yesterday showed was the public will. On the other hand, the Ford administration has shown a spiteful streak that targets specific councillors (like Wong-Tam or Layton on the Jarvis bike lanes or Fort York bridge). Pasternak is now that much less likely (read: not at all) to get a plum mid-term appointment or library funds in his ward that he has sought and Luby could be given a tough time on routine requests for her ward at Etobicoke Community Council. The Ford Team will likely want to serve notice in some way that this kind of opposition is not appreciated. 

Politics is a zero sum game of power and leverage, and so while yesterday was empowering for Council (and the middle in particular), it is disempowering for the Mayor's office. As Royson James notes in his reaction to the budget, if this budget vote occurred at Queen's Park or Parliament, it would be a vote of no confidence. 

The Ford team has their spin, and there's a grain of truth in it. It is true that this is a mostly conservative budget. It has a property tax increase lower than the rate of inflation, so it's a decrease in real terms, it has less spending than last year (although more taxes and fees) and it puts away more than $100M for reserves, which is good. 

But everything in politics is relative to expectations and the parameters for the given situation, and in this respect the Ford Team was clobbered. Their body language and general loutishness showed it too, and Mayor Ford reverted to an animal analogy to describe council's opposition as dogs salivating at budget money (animal comparisons have not served him well in the past, as Giorgio Mammoliti could tell you). 

Ford has thus far used the mayor's bully pulpit effectively to demand deference from council and forward his agenda, but this will likely decrease. Already councillors have been questioning whether the Ford-proposed 10% sale of Toronto Hydro has the votes to go forward and now that Pasternak has untied himself from the Ford administration, his critical vote on any transit plan will be pursued in greater earnest. 

As Josh Colle told me (for The Grid) after the vote last night, this vote wasn't a palace coup. But the budget was something that shaped all sorts of relationships, from citizens responding to City Hall, to the diminished authority of the Mayor's office, to Colle becoming the subject of headline news to Pasternak being the unlikely hero of this sprawling epic.

For council's opposition, the budget was about preserving services they value. But more than preservation, the budget changed relationships, an understanding of the city and levels of trust in City Hall. So in that way, the budget changed the city in small ways, but the most important ones weren't contained within the document.  

Further Reading:
Matt Elliott at Ford For Toronto breaks down the votes like the mensch he is.

Edward Keenan provides his typically excellent analysis at The Grid. 

Neville Park provides a really nice personal response and round up of the day. Added bonus: excellent use of a meme. 

John McGrath does his thing at Openfile, which is his typically good thing.

Torontoist had a bunch of coverage as you would expect, and kudos to Hamutal Dotan for making that happen. 

Marcus Gee provides a different view on the meeting for the Globe, one which I disagree with. Sue-Ann Levy has similar arguments for the Sun, but doesn't argue as effectively (or reasonably), so don't bother there.  

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