I have been at this dance before.
Rob Ford, Toronto's recently-elected mayor, danced into office promising to "stop the gravy train" at city hall. Problem is, he and his strategy are still dancing but there is no gravy. After stacking the City Council Executive Committee with like-minded councillors, the mayor shepherded a spending audit by consultancy firm KPMG that promised to find all of the excess fat and waste that must be hidden in city coffers. Instead, "What they've delivered is a process that is rushed, incoherent, poorly thought out, heavy on political dogma," according to Royson James of the Toronto Star. The fat he's now holding is a $3 million dollar invoice from KPMG. The firm is notorious for helping governments (national, regional and municipal) who seek to shift public services (read: wealth) to the private sector
The first part of the strategy, just like we saw at our hoe-down in the States under George W. Bush, is to gut revenue through slashing taxes. Mayor Ford shoved, like former President Bush, a substantial tax cut to his base in the form of rescinding vehicle, land transfer and other taxes. With decreased revenues, there follow several overblown debt crises which demand spending cuts in this strategy. After public sector budgets are defunded, services begin to come up short. In Toronto, Ford campaigned on the promise to find excess spending and waste at city hall. Unfortunately, no one bothered to point out that the city had an estimated $275 million dollar surplus. Then, accusing the defunded public sector of not matching its mandate induces further rounds of spending cuts.
The remedy, as always, is to privatize. In the States, we saw this begin with our expensive hammers for the Army in the '90s, our mothers having children in order to get more Aid to Families with Dependent Children (remember that program?) and then an increasing privatization of prisons. There are a host of other examples. In Toronto, we're in the second defunding stage where our highly profitable and enviable Toronto Parking Authority would be, as happened in Chicago, sold off to somehow cut its gravy.
In the marathon 23 hours of deputations offered throughout the day and continuing until 7:00 a.m., there were very well-reasoned and passionate pleas by every single demographic (disabled, seniors, queers, children, youth, teachers, parents, etc.) to preserve what they consider to be must-have services. An inspiring testimony to just how far the sector is stretching, and multiplying, every single dollar they receive argues, for instance, that for every dollar the city invests in the arts, $17.75 of revenue is generated. By any measure that is a good ROI (return on investment). At two in the morning, crowds inside city hall erupted in shouts of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" The mayor had previously ruled that the crowds shouts would deduct time from a progressive councillor's question period. Shame, indeed.
Throughout the deputations, either the city's budget chief or another of the mayor's allies on the committee would counter a particular plea against a cut, with requests for suggestions as to how to fill the budget gap. However, when several of us actually offered sound suggestions for eliminating the gap, these same councillors didn't ask for further details. Instead they dismissed some ideas, such as waste-to-energy initiatives with, 'Ah, talk to them back there" or "Miller killed that" -- all allusions to the previous mayor. In other words, there is a full-court press to find cuts but not much interest in actually filling the budget gap. Ideology sets the rhythm and hopelessness the melody. However, if you were at city hall, then you know that Torontonians are now dancing to a very, very different tune.
We are charged, energized and bursting with creative capital. Now that we have seen each other in that committee room, and from behind a microphone, we must connect, strategize and resist. Direct actions such as the civil disobedience used during our horrific G20 protests last year are going to be required. Mayor Ford intends to sell off parks, subways, heritage sites and even our libraries. If you don't believe me, check @margaretatwood on Twitter.
As a newcomer, I have heard only that Canadians are politically apathetic. Their ho-hum political scene isn't nearly as exciting the dances south of the 49th. This may be changing. It sure seemed that last night, a sleeping giant was stirring. We'll see if he's up for a jig.
Follow Thom Vernon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thomvernon