Wednesday 19 October 2011

Ford Focus (Group)

Edward Keenan on Twitter (see his Grid post here):

The frustrating thing: most voters want more services, and they want lower taxes. They consider both top priorities. See also: California. ...Which is to say they don't actually fit on the political spectrum at all. They emphatically support directly contradictory policies.

Sol Chrom:

Cityslickr on All Fired Up in the Big Smoke:

Keenan, Chrom and Cityslickr were each responding to a blog post by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s Trish Hennessy, a strategist with a sociology and communications background. Hennessy’s post relays the results of focus groups done of Ford voters in September, the results of which would likely surprise most observers. The participants- again, all Ford voters- were optimistic people who identified as Torontonians and:

expressed a hope and vision for the city that is positive, united, safe, clean, green, diverse, welcoming, vibrant and easier to get around in…. They still believe in the value of public services, and many want better public services – especially when it comes to public transit, which is becoming a symbol of a city in need of a fix.”

This plays into the angle that Ford was promoting at his Empire Club speech, that the talk of waste and mismanagement- putting aside the extent of what that is- can be perceived as opportunity. That is, an opportunity to build the city at no personal cost to voters. All it would take is a little grit to take on the system and speak up for the little guy. In fact, focus group attendees saw little to no ideological differences between Jack Layton and Rob Ford, suggesting a powerful conflation of Ford’s populist personality over their policies. Whereas Jack Layton was big on new ideas for improving the city- something Ford voters like- this is not the mayor’s focus. At the Empire Club speech, he said:

“Everyone has their own idea of what Toronto should become. Some want Toronto of the future to be a world leader in “green” practices. Others see Toronto as the world’s next financial hub. Still others want Toronto to be a global centre for arts and culture. 
Whatever your dream for our city is, it depends on one thing. Your dream depends on our ability to make our own choices, to chart our own course, to shape our own destiny. 
The sad truth is that we are losing our ability to make our own decisions. Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling. If we don’t fix the foundation now, our dreams for the future will collapse.”
Ford is right on one thing; it is very important for the city to plan for its financial future. However this quotation shows that he is not the person his voters thought they elected. The future ideas and priorities he speaks of are others’, not his own. It was much like last week’s Metro Morning interview in which he was unable to articulate what he loves about Toronto. How can you cut expenditures if you don’t know how to value them? To what end do you secure financial stability? What’s your city?

As Hennessy’s research shows, Ford Voters value city services but there is a disconnect between the cost to deliver these services and the taxes they require. CCPA Research Associate Hugh Mackenzie has an excellent 2009 speech on the subject in which he concludes:

Mackenzie speaks with the same urgency as Ford, but his urgency is to speak of the values and priorities of the government and its citizens. Which leads us back to Cityslikr’s question: how do we bridge this chasm?

Below are a few points made by others with my own humble thoughts:

1 Civic Engagement

As Chrom points out, the ‘sure, tax cuts with no impact on services are feasible’ sense indicates a lack of understanding of city budget issues that could be interpreted as wishful thinking. To remedy this requires involving people in the civic process and delivering information in a manner they find meaningful. 

For instance, Hennessy's research shows that conservatives (more likely to be Ford voters although they go across partisan boundaries) respond to more emotional explanations. They use empathy to identify with situations and connect with arguments that they can identify with personally. So rather than saying, "Rob Ford lied and his so-called solutions will worsen Toronto's structural deficit," what might be more effective is "Rob Ford mislead us and soulless cuts to the Christmas Bureau, Hardship Fund and Libraries hurt our friends and neighbours who need help the most. This doesn't represent the Toronto we value."     

2 Improve Language

Further to the previous point, terms can be improved too. For instance, taxes are abstract numbers, and thus tough to connect to the real tangible things we value. This only gets further obscured with murky terms like 'gravy train'. 

Something like the Vehicle Registration Tax, which Shelley Carroll admitted was a failure in being sold to the public when she voted to repeal it, was framed poorly. The language of the fee- it’s more a fee than a tax- focuses on the act of paying it rather than what it does. But if it was the Road Improvement Fee? That’s something that gives drivers responsibility over their roads, knowing that there are significant costs involved in maintenance and these must be shared.

3 Speak About Costs

There’s no free lunch and it’s counter-productive to pretend there is. Instead, we need to be willing to acknowledge all the things we value about the city and acknowledge that there’s a cost to them. Love libraries? Yeah, well they cost money. Think transit is important? Well that costs a lot of money too. Paying taxes is OK so long as they’re used reasonably and invested wisely. But people have to know where those taxes go and why they’re needed.

4 Speak About Successes

We only ever hear the bad news from government and yet we still expect perfection from them. Those are high standards albeit good ones to have. The thing is, we could celebrate what we do well a bit more. Celebrate the fact that the Toronto Public Library offers some of the broadest variety of programs at a median cost and enjoys a high use per capita rate. Celebrate the TTC’s safety record, efficiency and fare box recovery. Celebrate the urban planning that is slowly bearing fruit on the waterfront.

To engage in a good, meaningful conversation about what builds Toronto people need to know that by and large it works pretty well. They need to feel a connection between the taxes they pay and the services they receive and that they have responsibilities to share in supporting the resources that Torontonians value. That may not convince all 60 of those Ford voters from the focus group, but sets up the infrastructure to cross the bridge over the ‘Ford Nation’ chasm.


  1. I think bridge-building could be on the Mayor's agenda after the current budget discussions are over. I could see him starting to lay some groundwork now in the way he deals with the TCHC file.

    Of course, the combination of Ford (x2), Batra, Towhey, and Holyday may make any bridge-building just as turbulent a process as the bridge-burning that came before.

  2. I think you're right Rowan, and they do have opportunities to improve. The TCHC example is interesting, because current housing do need improvements but selling off single-family dwellings to fix up other units is a band-aid solution (that will be opposed by council's left).

    Another opportunity is something like this National Post article, which details the bad 'customer service' and infrastructure improvement process the city has in place:

    But yes, it's all the more difficult to build those bridges once the well has been poisoned as much as it has.