By Liz Rowley
The October 24th election in Toronto reaped a whirlwind when an unprecedented 50%-plus turnout of voters elected right‑wing populist Rob Ford to the Mayor’s seat, a right‑wing majority to Council, and a progressive majority to School Board. About a third of Councillors and Trustees are new. The demand for change was heard across the city. But what kind of change?
For years, local taxpayers have had to pay for costly services including transportation, health, housing, welfare, downloaded onto the city by the Harris government in the ’90s. Fully half of the property tax bill is the education tax, pooled by the provincial government and redistributed across Ontario. As well, the property tax load has been rapidly shifted off business and onto local ratepayers and tenants.
Provincial transfers and federal support for Toronto’s subway and transit system, child care, social housing, and social assistance, have sharply declined relative to increased demand, resulting in cuts to service, increased user fees, and contracting out. Add in mass unemployment, and declining wages and living standards, and the stage is set for a municipal revolt.
In an effort to maintain services, outgoing Mayor David Miller led a Canada-wide battle to force senior levels of government to deliver a new financial deal to cities. The provincial Liberals delivered the City of Toronto Act, which gave the city limited new powers to increase taxes on ratepayers and tenants, but not wealth or business. The result was the $60 annual licence plate tax, and the land transfer tax, which became symbols of the unsustainable and unfair tax load on Toronto residents.
Second, the municipal workers strike of July 2009, quickly morphed from a normal set of negotiations into a massive attack on public sector unions and free collective bargaining. Instead of setting the record straight on the minor issue of bankable sick days, which the right-wing characterized as a `gravy train’ for city workers, Miller and the progressive majority on Council (mainly NDPers) remained virtually silent throughout the strike.
The zipped lips of progressives on Council cost Miller the support of labour, and set the stage for the right‑wing (and their wealthy and powerful backers) to turn the `gravy train’ attack onto Council itself.
Caught in the headlights, progressives had little to say about the real problem of rising taxes and declining services. The NDP’s position was “if you want good services, you have to pay.”
But a majority of electors didn’t buy it, especially in the suburbs where services were never as good as in the city’s core, and where taxes (because of current value assessment) were always higher. This explains why Ford topped the polls in the suburbs, and secured enough votes in the core to win.
Rob Ford, George Smitherman (former Liberal Health Minister), right‑wing Liberal Rocco Rossi, and liberal Sarah Thompson, all campaigned on platforms of cutting jobs and services, identifying the city’s financial problem as excessive spending.
Nobody ‑ not even labour-backed candidate Joe Pantalone ‑ talked about the revenue problem, and the fact that the regressive property tax base can’t bear the load of running a modern city like Toronto. There was virtually no discussion of the Harris download of services and the load it placed on ratepayers and tenants. In the end, the votes split among right‑wing candidates who weren’t very different from each other on policy issues.
For most voters, the issue became the unsustainable status quo. Progressive candidates were consistently painted as big spenders, corrupt, indifferent to the plight of their constituents, and riders on the gravy train. Rob Ford often attacked progressive Councillors as “socialists” ‑ the biggest indictment of all.
Ford’s agenda includes eliminating the right to strike for TTC workers, whose collective agreement comes up in February. Defeating this proposition will be the first test of the progressive block on Council and the progressive forces in the city. It will be a very important fight.
The new mayor aims to eliminate the city’s Fair Wage policy (which prevents contracting out to minimum wage labour), to contract out garbage collection, and to cut 6,000 city workers (and the services they deliver) in four years. He wants to reduce the size of Council from 44 to 22, and eliminate the new licence plate and land transfer taxes.
Defeating this agenda will take a tide of mobilized public opposition, and an organized municipal movement. COPE in Vancouver comes to mind as one model of a civic party which has historically united labour with progressive community struggles.
One Toronto, a loose coalition of labour and progressive movements which campaigned against Ford, may have the capacity to morph into that kind of movement, but it will need to address issues like property tax reform and a new financial deal for municipalities. Progressives have to articulate an answer to the problem of rising taxes and declining services. They have to be willing to take on the issue of corporate taxation ‑ and debate the issue of who should pay for services.
(In our next issue, we will examine the outcome of the School Board election in Toronto.)