Monday, 9 January 2012

It's a frequent refrain that politics would be better if only politicians, media and citizens alike would just focus on policy. However, we're human and more Captain Kirk than Spock on our best days. And that's OK. 

In fact, it's a great deal of the reason why Rob Ford won the curious case of the 2010 mayoral election. 

Trish Hennessy, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyst who conducted the Rob Ford voter focus groups in September summarizes her findings on Ford's appeal as:
...the personal connection [from voters to Ford] was owing largely to their perception that Rob Ford was far too unvarnished a politician to be anything but himself. They understood he might be a little rough around the edges, but he struck them as sincere and he stood for something, and that held some appeal at the time.
Ford's voters were largely drawn to him by his authentic personality, not policy chops. He was perceived as an 'everyman' with the fortitude to stand up for his beliefs against near-universal opposition. In an election in which the electorate was angry against the status quo- waste that was real or perceived, the outside workers strike and the politicians that enable both- Rob Ford was attractive for his uncompromising and aggressive stance on the issues.  

But campaigning is different from governing. Where compromise and nuance are anathema to effective campaigning, they're the stuff of effective public policy, and voters have to be careful what they wish for.  

The Ford administration, to be sure, is an extension of Rob's personality. Like Don Cherry's invocation, it is brash and flouts the opposition, tends to entrench itself in the face of opposition (Pride Week), acts on whims (turning down the initial 2 public nurses) and denies the obvious (declining popularity, broken promises).  

These are characteristics of ineffective governance, one that is reactionary and close-minded. Yet in the next two months the city will face three challenges that require a change in mindset for good decisions. In late January the Council will come to a final decision on Ford's budget proposal, the City will continue its labour negotiations with the strong chance of a lockout and in February a proposal will come forward on the viability of the Sheppard subway plan.  

Each of these plans are untenable in their current arrangement and will require understanding and discussions to modify them. That appears unlikely to happen in meaningful ways. 

The current budget is informed by the pet peeves and whims of Ford like cuts to grants and social programs, while ensuring an arbitrary property tax number that is below inflation. The city cannot afford that kind of budget to pass but moreover it can't afford that governance to rule the day with items like city workers and transit. 

Sure, character matters, but it's not the start and end point for policy discussions. And in this administration, where there's little substantive policy to have any room for discussion, that's too bad.  

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