Our Toronto Correspondent: “Room for Debate”
Many of Terry Lavender’s friends thought he was crazy to move to Toronto.
How could I trade Vancouver’s temperate climate for Toronto’s cold winters and hot, humid summers? Or the mountains and the ocean for Lake Ontario? Or Gregor Robertson for Rob Ford?
Easy, I replied. Vancouver might be mild, but it’s also wet and gloomy for most of the year, and spring and fall in Toronto can be glorious. Vancouver might have more spectacular scenery, but Toronto’s ravines and parks have their own beauty.
And while Toronto might have Rob Ford, it also has democracy, something that’s lacking in Vancouver politics. Toronto politics is messy, and sometimes nasty, but I’ll take it over Vancouver’s one-party state any day.
Knowing Terry as an opinionated West Ender (is there really any other kind?), I invited him to send along his thoughts periodically. And so, for the first time, he has:
Earlier this week Toronto City Council voted to raise residential property taxes by 2 percent. The increase was passed after council rejected several other proposals, ranging from 0 percent to 3.1 percent.
Though the final tally was 38-6, the outcome wasn’t certain until the vote and a large number of people in the city followed the debate on Twitter as council members weighed the consequences — fewer shelter beds, unfilled fire fighter positions — of the various options. In order to ensure the budget passed, Mayor Rob Ford compromised on his hard-line against spending, adding $7 million in new initiatives.
Quite a contrast from Vancouver where Vision Vancouver’s council majority and strict caucus discipline means budgets — and most other council decisions — are decided behind closed doors.
Thanks to Vision Vancouver’s domination of council, park board and school board, most decisions are a foregone conclusion. Any serious debate takes place behind the closed doors of the Vision caucus rooms. (Not that it was any better under Sam Sullivan’s NPA, of course — it’s the system, not the party, that’s at fault.)
Members of the public may get a chance to speak on issues and sometimes public discussion goes on for hours, but those speeches have little impact. Once the last person has used up their allotted five minutes, the Vision councillors will vote the way they already decided in caucus. Public input is limited to election time.
Toronto, on the other hand, has no municipal party system. Candidates for mayor and council run independent campaigns and the result is a 45-member council with representatives from all over the political spectrum. Alliances on council are fluid and often based on a particular issue.
Because of this, there’s a wide range of opinions on council. Some councillors can be reliably depended on to vote a certain way most of the time, there’s a large group in the centre who vote depending on the particular issue and who can be swayed, by other councillors, by circumstances and by their constituents.
A good example is last year’s budget debate. Ford proposed a number of cuts in services, including libraries, day care spaces and community grants, but days of passionate presentations by residents led council to vote against most of the cuts. This year’s debate was less passionate, because the city has a healthier financial situation, but there was still an element of uncertainty. Contrast this to the Vancouver City Council budget “debate” where the most interesting development was a computer glitch that prevented budget amendments from appearing on some councillors’ computer screens.
Toronto’s system isn’t perfect, of course. The lack of party discipline leads to some bad and bewildering decisions — for example, council voted last year to rescind an existing 5-cent tax on plastic bags, replaced the tax with an outright ban on bags, then rescinded the ban, but didn’t reinstate the tax.
But on consideration, I’ll take the Toronto model, warts (and Ford) and all. It may be ugly, but it’s democracy.