Friday, September 16, 2011

Civil War Looming In "Ford Nation" HQ

If I were a betting man, I would have slapped down a c-note that Ford's administration would go off the rails within two years. Even during the election it was clear that Ford's buffoonish populism - attacks on public sector workers, combined with a pitch to fight gravy while not cutting services - could only lead him to trouble. It's not for nothing that the Toronto business class were stumping for George Smitherman, the smooth-talking, fancy-suit-wearing, downtown businessman. Smitherman had the chops to implement the agenda that the ruling class wanted - some cuts, sure, but just as much they wanted a stable operating environment. The situation in Toronto is not like Greece - all out class war is not needed to stop the city from tanking and while there is clearly a recession looming, it is not (yet) the case that they feel the need to really lay the boots in and risk the profit-damaging effects of both austerity and upheaval.

Enter Rob Ford.

The mayor's bombast, his heavy-handed, mob-like leadership style and the family compact way of running city hall, where his brother acts like the co-mayor, was accepted at first by most people and most councillors. After all, people voted for change and this was certainly a different style than Miller's "rational", "progressive" and consensus-building modus operandi. And councillors were cowed by the hype about "Ford Nation" - the supposed rush to small-minded, right wing populism by the inner suburbs of Toronto. But, the trouble with hype is that it only carries you so far and believing your own hype can be dangerous when it's past its sell-by date.

Ford's refusal to work with anybody outside of his inner circle - whether city unions or civil service elite - and his penchant for shooting from the hip on everything, even when he knows nothing about it, was destined to end in tears. Ford is an authoritarian leader without an authoritarian apparatus - or an authoritarian mood amongst the business sector - to do his bidding. Remember, the first thing that Ford did was cancel the Transit City plan that had been painstakingly constructed over a number of years, in consultation with not just environmental groups or, god help us, transit unions. It involved businesses and international transit experts. It's no secret that Toronto has a gridlock problem and an outdated transit infrastructure - highway traffic jams cost the Ontario economy over $1 billion a year. Business wants an upgrade. The population wants better transit services.

Ford wants the road system reserved exclusively for private cars. His solution, to build a privately funded subway system is a boondoggle. First off, let's remember that it was Ford's Tory buddies who buried (literally) the half-completed Eglinton subway line back in 1995. And not only does everyone know that subways cost way more than above-ground transit systems - like the LRT/dedicated streetcar lines planned for in Transit City - but Ford is re-discovering the reason why the capitalist state exists and it's not because communists tricked the population into setting it up. One of those reasons is to fund the infrastructure necessary for the economy because business doesn't want to. Sure, business will "donate" money to universities to get a $20 million building named after them and then write if off. A $4.7 billion subway line is another kettle of fish. Ford's Sheppard subway extension is going nowhere and I have a sneaking suspicion that Transit City will make a comeback in the next municipal election (if not sooner, depending on the outcome of the provincial election), along with the fact that the Ford's cancellation of it cost city taxpayers about $50 million.

But the unravelling of Ford's "dubious" subway plan is really just the tip of the iceberg that the good ship Ford is heading towards at full speed. Him and brother Doug's attempt to end run the longstanding Waterfront Toronto plan to revitalize the port lands was so ill-considered and silly - really, a mega mall and a ferris wheel on the waterfront? - and the method of bringing it into competition so sneaky and unprincipled that it was dead before council kook and Ford enforcer Giorgio Mammoliti could denounce opponents as inner-city communists. Of course the Waterfront Toronto plan is dominated by business interests and elite consultants, planners and the like. Of course it has taken ten years to get anything rolling. Of course the process has probably involved its own fair share of corruption. It's not that Waterfront Toronto is a model of democratic planning - it's that Ford's alternative is even more corrupt, more absurd and less appealing. And now it's coming undone with three of Ford's allies now saying that they'll vote against the plan.

We shouldn't kid ourselves that city councillors who backed Ford to get plum positions have suddenly seen the light, nor that the mushy middle and frankly mushy left have suddenly developed spines. The real reason that Ford's administration is heading towards a crisis, possibly a meltdown and even civil war within the Ford camp, is solely because of growing anger by ordinary people in Toronto. Ford's promises of no service cuts and no tax hikes - along with his destructive and embarrassing interventions into city projects like transit and the port lands - has disillusioned those who believed his lies. His refusal to set one foot near a Pride Toronto event - perhaps the city's biggest summer festival - has alienated even the centre-right who just saw it as rude and unnecessary. And the poll in today's Toronto Star that shows only 27% would vote for Ford if an election were held today, not to mention that 75% want their councillor to oppose Ford's cuts, will only deepen the sense of crisis at city hall.

The depth of that crisis and the growing likelihood that even the right wing is going to round on his administration, was made apparent when even a sycophant like Jerry Agar, the host of NewTalk 1010, went on the offensive during a Ford interview this week. Agar demanded to know where the missing "gravy" was that Ford promised to eliminate and Ford could only say that city employees were the gravy. Trying to cover for the fact that he is backtracking on his campaign against service cuts, Ford refused to use the word, instead using "efficiencies".
Challenged by Agar to say whether the elimination of daycare subsidies for 2,000 people would be a cut, Ford said, “No, it's an efficiency.”
 The fallouts from loyal councillors and challenges by right wingers like Agar are a sign of unravelling. It contributes to the sense that things are off track, accelerated by the mayor's inability to shut his mouth every time something stupid comes to mind. This makes it a good time to ramp up the public mobilizations against Ford, to show people that there is an alternative and that they aren't alone in thinking that the Ford brothers are a disaster. Last weekend's mass meeting in Dufferin Grove Park, organized by Toronto Stop the Cuts drew over 600 people, demonstrating the potential that exists. And the September 26 rally at 5:30pm at City Hall is perfectly timed to deepen the Ford crisis and put a different vision on the agenda. If it can draw the same kind of crowd as the protest in April, which brought out 10,000, there will be more defections from and infighting within "Ford Nation". We need to accelerate the decay of the Ford administration before they do (more) serious damage to city services and working conditions. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

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