Design for Democracy: Mayor Ford, the media and democracy

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"He's going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen as far I'm concerned. Put that in your pipes you left-wing kooks."

- Don Cherry, Mayor Ford's inauguration, December 7, 2010

The international press shakes their heads while reporting on the antics at Toronto's City Hall, asking each other why Mayor Ford is so popular. Why did his ratings go up 5 per cent to 44 per cent the day after the crack video was released? Why was he able to ride into City Hall on the simplistic campaign slogan, the 'Gravy Train'? How has he remained in power for three years without contest? And how does he have so much chutzpah that he campaigned for re-election seconds after publicly admitting that he has smoked crack? Is it really possible that he could be elected again?

I will try to answer these questions as an urban activist who has been writing about Mayor Rob Ford since his campaign four years ago, when I refused his fridge magnet in my neighbourhood park and also as an embedded journalist who has witnessed his disinterest in understanding municipal policy, disregard for democratic process, and erratic conduct. So much has been written about his alleged addiction; so little has been discussed about his inability to govern with due diligence, or show respect for those who contribute their expertise to deputize at City Hall -- and I believe that the mainstream media has been complicit in helping him to remain in power.

Polarizing the electorate

On December 7, 2010, Rob Ford's mayoral inauguration kicked off with a speech by NHL's Don Cherry, who divided 'bicycle-riding left-wing pinkos' from 'Ford Nation' so absolutely that recent events have neither surprised nor shocked me. What began as blatant discrimination has escalated to comedic fodder for late-night comedy shows and international media coverage, but its trajectory was clear the moment that Mayor Ford chose a hockey commentator to deliberately polarize the downtown from the suburban electorate. The right-wing media, particularly Sun News, supported this divisive speech in a flurry of cackling delight. Finally, the suburbs were going to have their everyman to represent their neglected interests, and Ford was their hero by repealing the $60 vehicle registration tax. The name-calling began; a verbal juggernaut that has been unstoppable, demoralizing to everyone on the political spectrum.

For several years, on Sundays from 1-3 p.m., Rob and his brother, Doug, have hosted a radio show on CFRB Newstalk 1010 to endlessly repeat their talking points -- he has "respected the taxpayer," saved $1 billion "and balanced the budget by outsourcing garbage collection "to stop the gravy train," and delivered on his promise to build "subways, subways, subways." They are not the subways he promised during his election, and he has broken his promise not to raise property taxes to build them, but three stops will be added to the Scarborough line to serve far fewer of his suburban supporters than the LRT, which had been paid for in full by the province. Toronto homeowners will pay in a 1.49 per cent property tax increase forever so that he can buy votes yet provide less transit.

Contesting destructive infrastructure projects

Mayor Ford has enabled powerful interests to walk on infrastructure projects to re-open bids for city-building legacy projects left by ex-Mayor David Miller, such as Transit City, the Port Lands, the Pan Am Games, and waterfront revitalization, while incurring hundreds of millions of dollars of cancellation fees. City Hall was declared "open for business," and three times more lobbyists have roamed the halls since 2010, trying to convince councillors that casino taxes would balance the city's books. Many urban planning and social service experts have come forward to contest this destructive re-visioning for infrastructure projects by deputizing to Mayor Ford's Executive Committee and submitting research for alternative, green solutions; one would think that fiscal conservatives would rejoice for free, expert consultation, instead, deputation time has been cut from five minutes to three.

This April, the CEO of Porter Airlines, Robert Deluce, asked City Council to approve his purchase order of $2.29 billion of jets at the Island Airport, and expedite the process of amending the Tri-partitite Agreement which governs the Island Airport. A motion was carried to examine ratifying the agreement, and to launch a study on the environmental impact of the jet expansion. Since the Navigable Waters Protection Act passed in 2012, hidden in Omnibus Bill C-45, there is no federal or provincial environmental assessment process left in Canada, which has forced Toronto's Board of Health to hold a Health Impact Analysis in six months, rather than the usual two to three years for a proper EA, relying on citizen involvement to determine its scope.  Many experts who have designed the waterfront for the City of Toronto are strongly opposed to the jet expansion, including Paul Bedford, former Chief Planner, David Miller, ex-mayor, and Ken Greenberg, former director of Urban Design and Architecture.

 Elizabeth Littlejohn

As a 'bicycle-riding left-wing pinko' who has frequently deputized to advocate for sustainable urban planning to Mayor Ford's Executive Committee, I care about the future of Toronto, especially its capacity for resilience in the face of climate change since the July 7th flood. After waiting 13 hours to speak about this jet expansion to include its effect on Lake Ontario as our drinking water, two councillors spoke throughout my deputation. Distracted, I paused, waiting for them to finish. Mayor Ford looked up and said, "I cannot ask them to stop talking." He had no vested interest to do so. He keeps his eye on the digital countdown, cutting off deputants to the second. It is a farce of the highest order, indicating that decisions have already been made, so why has anyone shown up to challenge them? Democracy needs to be cut short; projects need to be pushed through without opposition.

Deputants are referred to as 'usual suspects' by his Executive Committee, implying that only the same, tiny handful care to disagree with the powers that be. The 'usual suspects' are certainly never 'city builders'; that would imply a vested interest in the long-term capacity of our city to advocate for the intelligent design of our urban fabric. Jane Jacobs would have been brushed aside in her campaign against the Spadina Expressway, just as this year's deputants, who opposed the Scarborough subway extension, questioned the addition of the monorail and ferris wheel in the re-visioning of the Port Lands, and are presently contesting jet expansion on the Island Airport, have been willfully ignored. Upset, I spoke after my deputation to the City Manager, who said, "It is just politics." No, actually, it is the future environmental health of Toronto, which concerns me, and everyone else who cares enough to put themselves on the line to go on public record, and that is greater than politics. Or so I thought.

A right-wing playbook

Mayor Ford's polarizing messaging, 'elitists' vs. 'Ford Nation,' has been propped up by the right-wing playbook perfected by Tea Partiers in the U.S. and Thatcherites in Britain. These belittling tactics have been imported by neoconservative spin-masters to Ottawa, and parroted by his campaign team and paid pollsters to support his popularity in Toronto. Public relations firms teach how to induce voter fatigue, and instill apathy and/or fear in citizens about their right to enforce the United Nations principles of 'good governance' and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. How to do this? Governance becomes a customer service. Repeat after me: We are 'taxpayers,' not 'citizens' or 'residents,' and 'consumers,' never 'constituents' or 'stakeholders.'  As Maggie Thatcher pointed out, "There is no such thing as society." If there is no such thing as society, why work for a better one? Indeed, why go to work at all to pay for this society? And certainly, why listen to 'taxpayers' who provide valuable input for better urban planning? Counter your opposition by name-calling, send the mainstream media a fact sheet re-branding 'citizens' as 'taxpayers,' privilege private interests, and sit back to see what happens. Maybe, just maybe, they will be disengaged enough to go away and never bother you again. 

I have seen the terms 'usual suspects' and 'taxpayers' be used without question across the political spectrum, from public broadcaster TVO's The Agenda, to CBC's The National to CTV News. Sun News was the earliest adopter, with Sue Ann Levy in the lead as the municipal reporter, fabricating compound names for her opponents, like 'silly socialist mayor' and 'leftist blowhard.' When Porter's CEO Robert Deluce said that his legal team had read the deputations of 'all the usual suspects' on The Agenda, the interviewer said nothing in our defence.

 Elizabeth Littlejohn

For Mayor Ford, and Ford Nation, if there is no such thing as good governance, then the desire to remain in power is enough if you are 'sincerely, sincerely, sincerely sorry' that you smoked crack. An apology will do. Once the media repeats your truisms, and Sun Media rewards you by offering you a new TV show to continue your name-calling and public obscenities, (set to broadcast today at 8 p.m.), you have won your right to govern without moral authority for as long as you can hold office. I have learned from watching Mayor Ford's media coverage closely that had Canadians been educated from the youngest age about their right to enforce the principles of good governance -- participatory, accountable, transparent, equitable, inclusive and responsive -- his right to take office would have been contested immediately after his inaugural speech. If, through investigative reporting, the public had been informed earlier that Mayor Ford was not following his mayoral code of conduct, the public could have asked him to resign before his alleged criminal conduct had come to international attention. More incisive, and earlier, media reporting of Mayor Ford would have revealed that he has never had the best interests of everyone in the City of Toronto at heart, from the moment the chain of office was hung around his neck.

Elizabeth Littlejohn teaches sustainable design, social innovation and new media. The column "Design for Democracy" focuses on sustainable design solutions for a greener future.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Littlejohn.

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