@JohnLorinc and @thekeenanwire on the city budget, and dealing with Team Ford | #TOpoli

Budget_crisis

In a thoughtful discussion of the current municipal budget discussions at SpacingToronto, John Lorinc floats the idea of a proactive approach to the current municipal budget discussions, and suggests pitching an alternative to the blunt machete-swinging we’re all being led to expect from Team Ford.

In one sense, anything that contributes to a reasoned and considered debate has to be welcome. (Inside voices, friends. Let’s use our inside voices.) Writing about a “budget crisis” makes for good copy and establishes a sense of drama, but does it really contribute to a clear understanding, or, please god, serve the public interest?

I’d submit that it doesn’t. What is does is shift the discussion from a focus on facts and numbers into a minefield of emotionally volatile phrases and simplistic slogans that make for good lapel buttons and bumper stickers, but make reasoned debate and thoughtful engagement that much harder.

Perhaps “but” isn’t the right word, though. It’s hard not to think, sometimes, that the obstacles to reasoned debate are put there deliberately. Remember the Harris government’s scheme to “create a crisis” in education? Whose interests are served by all this manufactured hysteria around the budget? Apocalyptic numbers and phrases get thrown around and amplified by the transmitters in the media, and soon the sense of crisis is so acute that the stage is set for extraordinary measures. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine may be instructive in this regard. (If anyone thinks I’m being hyperbolic, just take a look south at Wisconsin and Michigan.)

If we turn down the volume on the noise machine and take a more nuanced and level-headed look at the way the budget takes shape, however, we see that it’s considerably less dramatic. In the Grid, Ed Keenan, who’s rapidly becoming required reading on city politics, describes the line-by-line, department-by-department process whereby the numbers are crunched. There’s some discussion of projected deficits, structural shortfalls, operating surpluses and the mundane and prosaic details of allocating resources and trying to leave wiggle room for unanticipated complications such as heavy snowfall or industrial-relations hiccups, but overall the picture is far less overwhelming than current portrayals might suggest.

Which brings us back to John Lorinc’s advocacy of a progressive Plan B. It’s a good idea, and it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but the context within which he advances it is just as important as the idea itself. While he isn’t responsible for the overheated rhetoric and ominous talk of a “cost-cutting showdown,” it’s worth noting that Toronto voters, at least in what used to be the downtown wards, have always shown 

  • via their votes, in both city elections and referenda, and
  • via community consultations, despite the rigging, pre-ordained outcomes, and dismissive remarks about self-selection,

that they’re willing to pay more for quality public services, quality public education, and quality public amenities.

Why, then, are we talking about cost-cutting showdowns, other than to feed some simplistic narrative that’s going to end up in a fiscal OK Corral? Government isn’t a business. It doesn’t make widgets and it doesn’t have “customers” or “shareholders” or “taxpayers.” It’s there to provide services and, one wants to think, advance the public good and enhance the quality of life for its citizens.

It’s in light of that that John Lorinc’s suggestion about drawing up an austerity plan is a little troubling. “Austerity” is one of those loaded words that, because of the way it’s been used, has come to play into a particular agenda — and that agenda can’t be allowed to take root here if we want to be able to recognize our city and our community once the current administration gets through with it.

In purely tactical terms, I’m not so sure it’s necessary to come up with a Plan B to demonstrate Team Ford’s fiscal and factual uncompetence (h/t Ivor Tossell). On the campaign trail, Rob Ford guaranteed no service cuts. And yet here we are talking about cutting … fluoridation, for Chrissakes (never mind daycare, public transit, libraries, and public health). We don’t have a revenue problem, but we’re looking to Queen’s Park for more scratch. We have a spending problem, and we need to respect taxpayers, but we’ve just paid KPMG — how much again? —  to discover that City Hall is not awash in gravy, and we’re spending — how much again? — to take out bike lanes that were already installed for tens of thousands of dollars?

Sure, let’s talk about advancing alternatives. But pitching to the mushy middle? I’d submit that it’s more important to make the middle less mushy — indeed, to make it as uncomfortable as possible. This isn’t a time for fence-sitting.

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