Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Toronto’s extremely small ‘p’ politics

We believe in strong government everywhere except in Toronto. We favor strong executives and strong political parties to keep Canada united, democratic, and effectively led. We’re proud of the historic capacity of Canadian reformers — when in office in provincial capitals and in Ottawa — to get what we want done.

We look down on Washington gridlock. But when we compare the City of Toronto to Chicago and New York, we concentrate on demographics and cuisine.

In Toronto politics, the frontrunners campaign on platforms and on resumes that highlight their personal enthusiasm for endless meetings with other politicians and lobbying other governments for money.

Can you imagine Michael Bloomberg or Rahm Emanuel running for mayor of Toronto? Why not?

It’s bigger than Chicago and is growing faster than New York, and still maintains a handy northern European respect for those in authority.

(Of course, the gentleman’s school of old Ontario believes that Toronto’s big enough to be taken seriously in New York and Los Angeles but worries that it may be too divided to be one city. John Barber of the Toronto Star argues that Ford Nation is real and so alien that it must be excised from the body politic of Toronto’s delicate downtown. Surely, the city’s intelligentsia can do politics with commuters in Scarborough and single parents in Etobicoke. After all, they’re qualified to guide Canada and advise Iraq on federalism.)

Toronto is also a mecca for pragmatic, talented, and tolerant individuals. In every sphere, including national and provincial politics, they favor strong leaders over weak ones.

Nevertheless, Torontonians who excel at exercising power give generously to Toronto charities but leave its politics to "lifers."

The key problem is hardly the savagery of its unions, community groups, public intellectuals, and journalists, and the solution is not teaching Torontonians to be even nicer.

Power itself is what’s missing.

The prospect of wielding real power is what attracts individuals who are best at wielding it. And the prospect of electing individuals to powerful jobs invites voters to think carefully and then turn out to vote.

Happily, improving the odds of electing exceptional mayors, at least for exceptional times, doesn’t demand that we find a charismatic import or accept less accountability as citizens.

The first big step is changing a few of the 459 provisions of Ontario’s City of Toronto Act, 2006.

That statute created the terms and conditions of what political scientists and policy wonks call a "weak mayor system." Appropriately, the Globe and Mail invoked its feature in endorsing John Tory for mayor:

“Remember, Toronto has what is known as a weak mayor system. The mayor is not a prime minister. Not even close. A Toronto mayor is but one vote among 45 on council. He may have allies, but he doesn’t lead a party. He isn’t backed by a slate of councillors who ran on a common platform…. The mayor has to negotiate his way to better policies, better choices and better government. He has to be a networker-in-chief….”

Networkers will help you get out of a ditch. And they thrive in great cities. But networkers can’t crack their dire political challenges. They have democratic personalities and never go on binges. However, exceptional leaders won’t seek an executive office with terms of reference that give them limited carrots and no sticks.

Surely, there must be a better way for Torontonians to avoid being harmed by lousy mayors than by trivializing the job.

The Rob Ford Embarrassment doesn’t argue for keeping the status quo but for replacing it with a strong mayor system: a system in which credible candidates would be recruited, tested, nominated, and backed by registered political parties. If those parties didn’t take their responsibilities seriously, they’d pay. Those parties, as well as family reputations, would suffer for the failures of their mayoral and their council candidates to deliver.

Few Torontonians ever say they like partisan politics. But they show up in highly partisan provincial and federal elections. In far greater numbers, though, they leave it to their neighbors to vote for innocuous names and innocuous incumbents on city ballots.

Toronto isn’t an island; its mayor must have influence in Queens Park and Ottawa. That influence, however, will only be strong enough to secure significant wins for Toronto if the mayor of Toronto has won more votes in Toronto than the busy Premier of Ontario and the ever-embattled Prime Minister of Canada.

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