Remember that idea about electing a mayor we love, one who loves us, one who is prepared to engage the city in an adult conversation about a glorious future, one who’d emerge following a year-long examination that is a municipal election?
Forget it. Not happening. Not this time. Too much division. Too much distrust. Too much angst. Too much of too much.
On Oct. 27 Toronto will be electing a mayor who can get us beyond the most exhausting, debilitating, divisive and demoralizing period of our civic history. We may grow to love each other, mayor and people; but survival, not romance, is what’s driving this relationship.
That’s the painful reality less than six weeks from election day. This election is not about a vision for Toronto’s future; it’s about washing away the recent past. It’s not about policy and the public good; it’s about politics and public cleansing.
Then, after the healing, the city can look to dream again.
Even that undertaking will be strained and extremely difficult. So much had transpired for so long between the guardians of our democracy and the disenfranchised masses that neither side care to talk about the genesis of the fracture. And, more recently, so much has happened in so short a time that neighbours wonder if they know each other at all; families view each other with distrust, unable to fathom divergent perspectives on what was thought to be bedrock values and issues.
Just to mention names and issues is to break open raw wounds, so let’s keep it generic as much as possible and not point fingers.
Transportation is such a pressing and critical issue that nothing could keep it off the agenda. But just about everything else fades into feeble talking points. There’s a civic restlessness that mutes real and vigorous wrestling of the issues of our time — lack of housing, poverty, joblessness among youth, the excruciating marginalization of so many communities and demographics. Even the most ardent advocates have taken pause.
People are not stupid. Sometimes they are selfish and vote for their own personal self-interest. Mostly, they don’t pay attention. And yes, they do seem to want it both ways — subways for nothing, increased services but no tax hikes.
But stupid, they are not. Forced to pay attention, they get it — even if they don’t let on. Probe below what seems like selfishness about taxes and government and a complex construct emerges.
Just before the last election, a little-known opinion poll showed the complexity of the voting public. Asked what should be done with any savings found in the city budget, respondents chose “pay down the debt, fund more services, build infrastructure, cut taxes” in almost equal increments.
Yes, they want to stop government waste, but that is not fuelled by some anti-tax, anti-government movement no fax payday loans. Faced with cutbacks and a jobs squeeze and a cash crunch in their own lives, they want the fiscal behaviour at city hall to reflect their everyday reality. Upon further review, really, it seems like they would pay, if they somehow felt the person asking for added taxes has taken good care of the taxes already paid.
Everything depends on fiscal credibility.
Several elections ago, a city administration looked for ways to spend money and — placed in the most positive light — to improve city services. That was replaced by the current regime that looked for ways to curtail spending. One regime, in effect, spawned the other.
I don’t detect any desire to countenance another debate about waste. The raw anger of four years ago has dissipated. But there is no desire to splurge. With the history of the last 10 years, fiscal discipline is the essential starting point. A first principle. Prove that and citizens will travel with you down the road to more taxes. But they must be convinced. And once they are, this big adult discussion — all the wonderful stuff about a livable metropolis — can take place.
Focus groups tell the campaign managers that voters want attention to infrastructure — build something, subway, LRT, just get on with it. They are not aching for a grand vision for a great city by the lake.
They do not relish a campaign message promising more taxes; and it’s not that they want to be lied to. It’s more complex than that. Give them the unvarnished truth and you won’t get elected. But, get elected; show fiscal responsibility; earn credibility; and they’ll consider taxes you recommend.
How do we know?
The current mayor promised subways without taxes. He levied a subway tax. And nobody revolted. There was barely a peep of protest because citizens felt he saved them money so if he is levying taxes it must be unavoidable in order to deliver something the citizens desire.
As such, on October 27 we are electing a mayor that gives us a general comfort that he or she understands our angst about the cost of government. And someone who understands the second inviolable requirement: a mayor who can govern the city and lead city council — without the drama.
People aren’t stupid. Essentially, they want a mayor with three basic characteristics: fiscal credibility, personal integrity, and ability to unite suburb and downtown, left and right, rich and poor in constructing a great city. Current circumstances prevent them from getting past the first two.
That’s all this election is about. The vision will have to wait.