In answer to @graphicmatt – no, this isn’t conservatism | #TOpoli

Matt Elliott’s post yesterday wonders, perhaps rhetorically, where Toronto Council’s conservatives are. He sums up the incoherence and cumulatively damaging effect of some of the decisions Team Ford’s managed to push through this week – getting rid of bike lanes, turning down free provincial money for public health nurses, voting against community grants, dismissing the results of rigged community consultations that produced results they didn’t like … well, it goes on and depressingly on.

I’ve already argued that this bunch clearly doesn’t think government should be in the business of advancing the public good at all. And even though I’ve written that we should think of ourselves as citizens rather than as taxpayers, if we take wise management of our tax dollars as a touchstone of good governance (regardless of political inclination), then it’s pretty hard to argue that they’re meeting that standard either. 

Indeed, the litany of Team Ford’s missteps and their expensive consequences could take weeks to catalogue. Trashing Transit City, paying consultants to look for non-existent gravy, precipitating a war with city employees, wholesale staff buyouts … all of these are going to have measurable and deleterious consequences not only on the city’s bottom line, but on the quality of everyday life for its citizens. In this regard, I’m indebted to Ivor Tossell’s witty piece in the Toronto Standard this week, in which he draws a distinction between Incompetence and Uncompetence. If competence is something that tofu-eating, bike-riding, latte-sipping downtown elitists do, well, one can understand why it’s anathema to Team Ford.

It’s hard to be sure whether there’s a coherent vision at the root of any of this beyond some feverish, inchoate hostility to the notion of community per se, let alone what to call it, but Matt Elliott is right in at least one respect: whatever this is, it ain’t conservatism.

In truth, it’s a little tricky to start talking about conservatism, particularly in an age when the meanings of words are so elastic and subject to redefinition in the service of various agendas, but the way I’ve always understood it, it’s actually an honourable and time-weathered tradition. Not one I necessarily subscribe to wholeheartedly, but there’s enough in it that’s worth drawing on in any comprehensive vision of good governance. At its core, conservatism means preserving the best parts of our traditions, our history, our collective character, and the lessons we’ve learned therefrom. More than that, it embodies all the best things about the citizenship to which I keep referring: decency, compassion, a sense of community, a devotion to things larger than oneself, and an acceptance of one’s obligations – to community, to society, to one’s fellow citizens.

That’s a very short and shallow summary of the conservative tradition, at least as I understand it. And perhaps there’s an element of wishful thinking to this, but at minimum, it manifests in our day-to-day lives in the qualities of generosity, respect for other viewpoints, and a willingness to engage in a spirit of civility and tolerance. Hands up all those who think that’s an accurate characterization of Team Ford’s approach.

[crickets]

Didn’t think so. You don’t have to subscribe to the conservative tradition to recognize that it’s been hijacked, and bears little or no relation to the atrocities currently being committed in its name, at the municipal level or anywhere else. This bunch has no interest in preserving or maintaining anything; they’re hacking at the bonds that hold our communities together with machetes and packing dynamite around the mechanisms of accountability and good governance. We’ll be lucky if Toronto isn’t reduced to a smoking ruin by the time they’re done. If they’re conservatives, then I’m Edward the Confessor.

Much as I want to keep my tone moderate and my arguments measured, there’s simply no way to view resentment, self-absorption, vindictiveness and an utter absence of reflection as civic virtues, let alone as a basis for an approach to public service. We’re well past the point where the emptiness of Rob Ford’s campaign promise that services wouldn’t have to be cut has become obvious. (Whether or not there’s going to be a political cost to that remains to be seen. More on that to come.)

Well, we’re stuck with him now, and we will be for the next three and a half years. Responsibility for that lies in part with the people who voted for him, and with every reduction in the quality of their everyday lives, they’ll be getting what they voted for, but the focus can’t just be on voters. Tempting though it sometimes is, there’s little point in demonizing and insulting our fellow citizens. 

We need to look elsewhere – and in that regard, I’m thinking of everyone who helped perpetuate the narrative that this election was all about the Pissed-off Taxpayer, both in the media and in the campaigns of Rob Ford’s rivals. Of all the stupid and destructive memes that have taken root in public discourse, that’s probably the worst. 

If we’re going to take our city back, we need to start by reclaiming the conversation. 

We need to talk about citizens, not taxpayers. 

We need to strip the notion of elitism of its pejorative connotations. Really, when we’re making multimillion-dollar decisions about the future of our city, do we want them made by thoughtful, educated people who think things through, or do we want them made on the basis of anger, ignorance and gut reaction? 

We need to pay attention to the meanings of words and stop allowing them to be used as epithets. 

And most of all, we need to start valuing qualities such as thoughtfulness, open-mindedness and maturity.

Not sure whether it’s helpful to stick a label on any of this, but if that’s conservatism, sign me up. We’re not going to find it anywhere in Team Ford.

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