It is unusual that a municipal election (even in Canada’s largest city) should make much news, but this year’s elections in Toronto are making waves for a specific reason. According to a number of polls, rabidly right-wing candidate Rob Ford—widely held to be a nut job, at best—may be poised to become the next mayor of Toronto. In a city that is described to be diverse and cosmopolitan, how can this be possible?
A recent poll has put Ford’s popularity at 45.8%, while the perceived frontrunner, former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman, trails with only 21% among committed voters. Former Liberal president Rocco Rossi and current city councillor Joe Pantalone, the mayoral candidate endorsed by the Toronto York District Labour Council, lag even further behind. At the beginning of the election, most of the corporate media thought that Smitherman would easily win in a landslide.
Most of this same media dismissed Ford as some lunatic right-wing fringe candidate, who would pose no danger to Smitherman’s chances. There was more than enough evidence to seemingly back up this prediction. Ford has a long history of being a populist nut at City Hall, and a history of getting into public disgraces. In 2006, he showed up drunk to the Air Canada Centre and began picking random fights with fans in the arena. In 2008, he decided to praise the Toronto Chinese community by saying, “Those Oriental people work like dogs.” In a debate at City Hall, Ford claimed, “AIDS is very preventable… if you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably.” He even proposed to stop accepting refugee claimants to Toronto, saying that the city was full, during this election campaign.
In spite of all this, Ford is currently the most popular of a sad-sack list of mayoral candidates. The Liberal and corporate press is dumbfounded. One Toronto Star column was even titled, “Are we nuts?”
The failure of reformism
The outgoing NDP mayor, David Miller, was elected with much hoopla back in 2003, ending the bizarre regime of another right-wing loony, Mel Lastman, who was infamous for having called in the army after a snowfall and for refusing to travel to Africa because he was afraid of being boiled in a pot and eaten.
Miller was the first NDPer elected as mayor of Canada’s largest city. In addition, many NDP city councillors were victorious in that election. Coupled with the provincial Liberals’ victory at Queen’s Park that same autumn, many workers believed that there would be major change from the attacks they had had to endure during the so-called “Common Sense Revolution.”
Seven years later, life hasn’t improved for Toronto workers. In many respects, it has only gotten worse. There is still a lack of affordable housing in the city (and the few who do have access have to live in squalid conditions). The homeless still fill up downtown streets, even in the dead of winter. Public transit continues to crumble, while fares have rocketed under Miller’s tenure. Instead of improving services, Miller and the rest of city council have closed down pools, closed all public libraries on Sundays, restricted hours at community centres, installed police at public schools, massively increased recreation fees for community sports programs, increased all sorts of taxes and fees for basic city services, increased entertainment and liquor taxes, etc., etc.
Even though he was supposed to be the “labour-friendly” mayor, Miller and his Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) lieutenant, Adam Giambrone, have been embroiled in two nasty strikes with TTC workers, and participated in the subsequent demonization of transit workers by the bourgeois media. In the summer of 2009, Miller attempted to place the burden of the city’s financial crisis on the backs of Toronto civic workers, even though he had just given another pay increase to the city’s police officers, was pushing forward with $4-million worth of renovations to the mayor’s office at City Hall, and supported a large pay hike for city councillors!
The bourgeoisie claim that the city is in a financial crunch, and to a large extent, they are correct. There are only two options open to the municipal government: either place the burden of the financial crisis on the backs of Toronto’s workers (in the form of layoffs, wage cuts, and service cuts), or institute a socialist program that attacks the ballooning police budget and reverses the Mike Harris legacy of downloading federal and provincial services onto the city.
During the Miller years, Toronto city council capitulated to bourgeois hysteria over crime, and increased the police budget by over $1-billion. Policing is now the single biggest expense for the city of Toronto. Even after it became clear that the Toronto Police had grossly violated people’s basic democratic rights at the G20 this past June, Miller was Police Chief Bill Blair’s staunchest defender.
At the same time, Miller and the rest of city council have been unsuccessful in reversing the downloading of social services from the federal and provincial governments that occurred in the 1990s. In no sane system is welfare funded at a municipal level; and yet, this is the burden Torontonians must bear. According to the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, only 6% of the taxes raised in Toronto go to pay for all of the services provided by the City! A socialist city council would not be afraid to mobilize the entire working class population of the city in a mass campaign in favour of uploading services and using the released funds to make real change. If necessary, Toronto must be prepared to table illegal budgets to force the provincial and federal governments to take responsibility for funding social services. If the municipal government were truly serious about representing the interests of ordinary Torontonians, it would be capable of mobilizing workers to strike, if needed, to force the governments into paying. This is what happened in the late 1980s in the city of Liverpool; a socialist city council passed a series of illegal budgets, and mobilized general strikes in the city to force the Thatcher government to pay the money needed to provide services to the city’s workers.
Unfortunately, Toronto workers did not get the municipal government they expected when they elected Miller & Co. in 2003 (and re-elected in 2006). They were hoping for a mayor and city council that would represent their interests, not those of the Toronto Board of Trade. In fact, throughout his mayoralty, Miller has attempted to distance himself from Bay St.’s assertion that he represents labour’s interests, going so far as to let his NDP membership lapse.
Miller & Co. have allowed the right wing on Toronto City Council to present themselves, in a demagogic fashion, as the defenders of ordinary Torontonians. While Miller and other NDP councillors like Giambrone and Howard Moscoe are defending city councillor pay hikes and perks, it is the right wing, especially Rob Ford, who pretend to represent “the little guy.” This is all a sham. If Ford were elected, he would immediately begin to privatize city services, throwing thousands of civic workers out of a job, and eliminating programs and services that are depended upon by working class people.
Genuine socialist platform needed
Unlike what the Star or other media outlets may be saying, the problem is not that Torontonians may have gone nuts. The problem is that the vast majority of Torontonians, especially working class ones, feel that none of the candidates are offering them anything in the upcoming municipal elections.
Many people think that the issues raised in municipal elections are less interesting than those in provincial and federal elections. They don’t see the issues being raised by professional politicians as having an effect on their lives. They simply see municipal elections as a struggle between careerists who view city council as another notch on their resume.
This is how Rob Ford has, so far, leapt to the front of the mayoral race. He is the only candidate who has had something different to say than all of the other politicians. Ford is nothing but a populist, but he has been able to mobilize the real anger against the status-quo that is present amongst Torontonians. Unlike Bay St.’s darling, George Smitherman, Ford is seen as someone who has answers to the financial crisis of the city and has mobilized support on this basis. However, it would be wrong to characterize this as a move to the right in the general population. There is a seething anger that is looking in every direction for an outlet. One poll that had Ford in front also revealed that David Miller would be in the lead if he were on the ballot. What we have is an incredibly unstable electorate that is looking for answers. If a radical solution is not given by the organizations of the working class then a radical solution will be provided by the right wing demagogues.
Labour’s candidate, Joe Pantalone, offers very little to get working class people mobilized for this election. Aside from having virtually no charisma, Pantalone offers the status-quo, with no solution to tackle all of the problems facing working class Torontonians. His campaign commitments are anaemic at best, with such radical demands as planting more trees and building a cricket pitch. He is, rightfully, seen by many as just another City Hall career politician. It is no wonder that he is far behind the leading candidates.
If Ford’s support holds as the election gets closer, there is a real danger that the leaders of the labour movement, seeing that support for Pantalone is going nowhere, may urge workers to vote for George Smitherman in order to stop Ford from gaining office. However, there is absolutely nothing “progressive” about Smitherman, and nothing that would make him a better option for workers than Rob Ford. Like Ford, Smitherman has promised to privatize various city services (particularly garbage and recycling services), and has promised to “trim” the city’s workforce. For six years, Smitherman was one of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s key cabinet ministers, and we only need to look at the Liberals’ sorry record over that time to know what sort of attacks would come if he were elected mayor.
The leadership of the labour movement (including the NDP) needs a slate of candidates that will not be afraid to stand up for the interests of working class people. In Montreal, we saw the emergence of Projet Montréal as a real electoral force in the last municipal elections, precisely because they offered Montreal workers real gains and promises in the election.
If we had a similar sort of party or slate in Toronto that offered a program of free public transit, affordable housing for all, and an end to the militarization of our streets and schools, we could be sure that working class people would turn out to vote, and a nut-bar like Rob Ford would have no chance of winning. Furthermore, such a program could mobilize the city’s workers into a fighting force, to ensure that the provincial and federal governments properly pay for the municipal services that we need.
There are no solutions to the city’s crises under capitalism. As the Miller years have shown, reformism and cozying up to the bosses does not work—it only brings more misery for the working class and youth. Unlike what the right-wing in the NDP says, moderation not bring lasting electoral support. Workers are now alienated from Miller & Co.’s legacy. Because of these failures, workers are set to face a massive series of cuts and attacks, regardless of whether Ford or Smitherman are elected. It is the failure of reformism that has handed our city to the Right and the reformists will bear a direct responsibility for this mess.
We can avoid this disaster if labour puts forward a slate of candidates willing to put the interests of workers ahead of those of Bay St, with a platform that is able to stir the masses of Toronto to fight back. We need a socialist program to build a socialist city, with decent services, housing, transit and jobs for all!