@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and more on controlling the narrative: the runup to 2014 | #TOpoli


Well, another week, another messy and avoidable scandal in Ford’s Toronto. 

The whole reading-while-driving thing is getting tired by now, of course. Yeah, it was fun (in the way that only reckless endangerment of others can be fun), but it was also predictable, and while it’s pretty easy to follow the arc these things take, way things are going, there’s sure to be another embarrassment before long. 

I’ve been meaning to set this out for several days, ever since an impromptu late-night beer with Daren prompted a couple of synaptic twitches. A couple of events have brought things into what passes for sharper focus among guys our age in the interim, so … a few observations on the state of politics in Toronto, circa late summer 2012.

The advent of private waste collection west of Yonge Street earlier this month brought one of Daren’s typically trenchant and well-written observations: in short, he argues that Rob Ford’s political future depends, in large part, on garbage. Amid much smirking and triumphalist chicken-dancing from some of Ford Nation’s er, “brighter lights,” Team Ford has delivered a giant FU to the city unions, following through on one of the currents of resentment it tapped in its successful election campaign in the fall of 2010. Take that, lazy overpaid socialist union thugs! End of the line for this gravy train!

While this provides an undeniable emotional jones for the union-haters, the jury’s still out on whether it’ll amount to more effective and efficient delivery of service, and in a larger sense, whether it will play out in terms of better overall municipal governance. That the private operator’s had some settling-in difficulties is a matter of record; Daren argues, quite reasonably, that while it’s only fair to cut GFL a little slack, Team Ford’s success will be judged, in large part, on whether the contracting out actually saves millions of dollars without any reductions in service. This is what Rob Ford ran on, after all. 

We’ve been told, guaranteed actually, that the contracting out of waste collection to Green For Life will save us $11 million annually with no reduction in the service provided. That is the benchmark privatizing proponents gave us. That is the goal that must be met. I will argue that the mayor’s ‘mandate’ depends on it.

The Tweetr (that is what the young folk are calling it these days, yes?) being what it is, it wasn’t long before a lively discussion ensued. A full and frank exchange of views, I think they call it. My respect for the people involved is also a matter of record, but part of what prompted the segue from that to this was the participation of our friend Nick Kouvalis.

Full disclosure here: notwithstanding the way he’s regarded in some circles at City Hall, my thinking is pretty similar to Daren’s when it comes to Nick. As Daren puts it:

Although I’ve never actually met Nick Kouvalis and, in all likelihood, oppose almost everything he purports to stand for in terms of governance, I think I just might admire like fear… what’s the word, I’m looking for here?… respect? Hmmm. Grudgingly respect him? OK. He’s a guy I’d like to sit down and have a beer and shoot the shit with. What’s the word for that?

What Daren said. Dude passes my beer test too. The guy’s good at what he does, if you define success in terms of electoral results (more on that in a minute). We don’t have to like or agree with what he does, but he’s got insights we can learn from, and I’ll say this for him: on the occasions I’ve engaged with him, he’s answered directly and candidly. Whatever else I may think of him, I have to acknowledge the straight answer instead of the bullshit smokescreen. 

Again: disagree with the man, but respect his effectiveness and don’t let the disagreement turn into scorched-earth hatred. (That may say more about my bourgeois naiveté — er, my lingering nostalgia for civility and old-style conservatism — than it does about anything else, but let’s leave that be for now.)

And as we all know, Nick ran an effective and successful 2010 campaign for Team Ford. I’ve argued, however, that the municipal election of 2010 marked one of the lowest points in the history of Toronto politics, in large part because of Team Ford’s success in establishing a dominant narrative of resentment, pessimism, shallow thinking and belligerent divisiveness. The city’s falling apart. Lazy unionized workers with their culture of entitlement and jobs for life. Waste, inefficiency and gravy trains. Downtown elitists sneering at the hardworking suburban taxpayers. War on the Car. Time to blow up City Hall and start over.

I said a couple of sentences ago that Nick’s good at what he does. What he’s done, unfortunately, has diminished us as a city and as a community. The ascendancy of Team Ford has lowered the tone of public conversation, poured sand in the mechanisms of governance and devalued the currency of citizenship. We’ve been paying the price ever since, in both the regular mayoral embarrassments and the continuing day-to-day fraying of the social fabric. I’ve never tried to hide my thinking on that

One of the fundamental themes here, both in the context of this essay and a larger overarching analysis of Team Ford’s tenure, is the difference between campaigning and governing. Once again, campaigning isn’t about nuance, but about framing your message, delivering it effectively, and mobilizing the vote in the run-up to election day. And there’s no denying the impact of simple, emotionally resonant messaging; a lot of people thought the idea of Mayor Rob Ford was a joke, but here we are.

When it comes to governance, however, simplicity and catchphrases have to give way to reflection, analysis, and critical thinking. Interests have to be balanced, stakeholders identified, objectives defined, and resources allocated in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s complicated. It’s not as easy as repeating bumper-sticker slogans like “Respect for Taxpayers.”

So here’s one of the fundamental themes for 2014: The Difference Between Campaigning and Governing.

And here, too, is one of the yardsticks whereby Team Ford’s performance will be judged come Campaign 2014. Have they delivered effective governance? Have they managed a coherent and co-ordinated operation of public institutions? Have they demonstrated the ability to work the system efficiently and collegially? This is where Nick’s record, and his own words, become particularly relevant.

Another question that will define Campaign 2014, then: Effective Governance.

Whether the current municipal structures are designed for optimal delivery of services is a larger question than we have room for here. (In that regard, though, it’s worth revisiting a couple of compelling arguments from J.M. McGrath and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler.) We needn’t resolve that question, however, to observe that a large part of effective governance, within the current context, is the ability to build coalitions, to bring people on board your team, and to work collaboratively. In short, it’s about negotiating, persuading folks to buy in, building support, and Getting Along With People.

Well then. Anyone want to try charting Team Ford’s record in that regard over the last couple of years? Anyone want to lay odds on the mayor’s chances of success in advancing his agenda over the next couple of years? You can look at big things like transit or little things like plastic bags, but the pattern’s pretty clear; Team Ford’s control of city council is tenuous to non-existent. And if you’re going to claim operational competency in municipal governance, you need to be able to work with council. It’s part of the job. 

Whatever you may think of them, it’s something both David Miller and Mel Lastman were able to do. Contrast that with Team Ford’s performance. Once again, back to Nick:

To Nick’s credit, he doesn’t try to dissemble or hide this. In it to win. Take no prisoners. I’m here to get things done, not make friends. No substitute for victory. From there it’s not that far to the end justifies the means. Maybe there are aspects of this I’m not seeing, but it’s hard to reconcile an approach like this with effective team-building. In effect, it’s almost guaranteed to kneecap the mayor’s ability to build coalitions — never one of Rob Ford’s strong points to begin with

Another overarching theme for 2014, then: Working With Council.

Team Ford’s strategy in that regard, predictably, hasn’t been that encouraging. In fairness, this isn’t about Nick; I’ve listened to enough iterations of the #FoBroSho on Sunday afternoons to recognize one of their consistent memes. Every week, it seems, Rob and Doug go on about getting different councillors in 2014, setting up a lame excuse for their own inability to bring people onside. “Sorry folks, we know we haven’t gotten any subways built, but it’s not our fault. Those people on council won’t work with us!” You can see the same impulse at work when Doug Holyday tells us not to send any more activists, unionists, or cyclists to City Hall.

I hate to get all Donald Rumsfeld here, but you work with the council you’ve got, not the council you wish you had. If you can’t do that, you’re not a successful mayor. It’s part of the job. Building consensus, putting together a team, fashioning a majority to help you implement as much of your agenda as you can. Miller did it. Mel did it. You don’t get to alienate everyone, spend the next two and a half years sulking on your radio show, and then campaign on the basis of divisiveness, resentment, and “just send me a bunch of different councillors.”

From a pragmatic point of view, folks like Daren and Adam and Hamutal Dotan are right: if you can cobble together a coalition of 23 councillors, then the mayor doesn’t matter. As the events of the past year have shown, the councillors we’ve got are quite capable of controlling the agenda and governing around the mayor if they have to. It’s not ideal, and as John points out, it raises questions about competing mandates, but it is workable. 

On the other hand, Ed Keenan’s argued, persuasively, that the mayor’s record of gaffes has consumed far too much energy, focus and attention. In the wake of the Danzig shootings, for instance, Ed wrote:

With his customary bravado, the mayor proclaimed on Monday, “I’m taking a very simplistic approach.” That is the problem, I’d suggest. And so instead of discussing these very complicated issues, we’re spending time discussing the mayor’s inadequacy. What a load of BS.

Much as we might wish it were different, Ed’s got a point. Instead of chuckling about Rob Ford being in over his head or toying with the bright lights of Ford Nation on Twitter, we could be doing something constructive. Are we enhancing civic life? Are we strengthening the bonds of community? Or are we arguing about stupid shit?

So there’s one more possible storyline in the run-up to 2014: The Focus of Public Conversation.

By any of these criteria, Team Ford’s record ought to be instructive. But once again, friends: narratives. Framing. Messaging. 

Buckle up. 

Related posts:

Update: Now playing over at Toronto Citizens.

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