The Passion of Rob Ford, or the Neoliberal Making of Toronto’s Municipal Crisis

The Passion of Rob Ford, or the Neoliberal Making of Toronto’s Municipal Crisis

By now much of the world has heard of Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford. But the real story in Toronto is not Rob Ford. How did one of North America’s most diverse cities in one of the west’s most robust democracies come to elect a right-wing populist?

Rob Ford, 2011 (Andrew Louis/Flickr)

By now much of the world has heard of Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford. Media outlets have treated us to a staccato drumbeat of astounding revelations about the mayor of Canada’s biggest city. Outside Toronto, observers gleefully tut-tut the city that Canadians love to hate for its municipal leader’s failings. Beyond Canada, people follow the city’s ongoing political soap opera with a mix of amazement and amusement. It’s little surprise that so easy a target has become the object of global mockery, especially in the United States. Many south of the border imagine Canada to be a kinder, gentler, better-ordered place—a peaceful, well-governed society whose good manners and health care system offer a mirror with which to examine their own society’s failures. Americans have watched videos of big city mayors smoking crack before; Ford comes as a comic surprise because they simply never imagined that things like this could happen in Canada, too.

While stereotypes like this are great material for late-night television humor, they are an altogether shakier foundation for more serious analysis. Yet this idea of Canada underpins much of the commentary that has filled airwaves, newsprint, and internet real estate in Canada itself. Most focus on Rob Ford the man, dwelling on his personal problems, issuing heartfelt calls for him to seek substance abuse treatment, or decrying his moral failures. Dismissing him as an embarrassing anomaly promises Canadians a reassuringly quick path out of the current debacle. An editorialist in Toronto’s Globe and Mail declared that a healthy dose of civility was all the city needed to heal. Others pointed the finger at weak municipal institutions and called for giving city council the authority to impeach mayors. The operating assumption is that if only Ford were to resign and check into rehab, the city to tweak its bylaws, and its citizens to take a refresher course in national politeness, everyone could put this sorry episode behind them and return to Canadian normal.

Blaming Rob Ford frees Torontonians from asking uncomfortable questions about their city, and leaves unchallenged its image as a model of diversity and civic-minded urban life. That so many declared themselves shocked, shocked to find that Toronto was governed by a human train wreck belies the mayor’s long and abundantly documented track record of undignified behavior. Toronto Life magazine coined the term schadenford—a neologism to describe Torontonians’ sport of gawking at Ford’s misbehavior—as early as 2008, when police arrested him for allegedly assaulting his wife. It was already painfully clear that Ford was utterly unfit for public office well before he ran for mayor in 2010. That so few dwell on Ford’s ugly habit of tossing about racist and homophobic remarks suggests a broader unwillingness to contemplate the possibility that multicultural Toronto knowingly elected a bigot.  

How did so manifestly unqualified a candidate win a landslide victory, and how is it that he continues to have so many partisans? Ford captured the 2010 mayoral election with 47 percent of the vote, well ahead of the 35 percent garnered by the second-place candidate, a long-time veteran of Liberal provincial cabinets, in a race that drew unusually high voter turnout. Throughout Ford’s tumultuous tenure in city hall—and notwithstanding the most recent revelations—his public approval ratings have hardly wavered, holding at over 40 percent. To really understand Rob Ford as a political phenomenon requires retracing Canada’s steady march to the right since the 1980s.

The story begins three decades ago in Alberta, a province whose strong local identity, frontier mythology of self-reliant individualism, abundant oil, plentiful evangelical churches, resentment of eastern elites, and right-wing political culture inspire some to call it the Texas of Canada. Preston Manning, the market-worshiping son of an Alberta premier who reigned unchecked between 1943 and 1968, spent two decades working to bring the west’s political agenda onto the national stage and move Canadian politics to the right. Manning helped found the Reform Party in 1987, but once it became clear that his western-based party could not forge a path to a federal majority, he sought out alliances with the traditional right, a course that led to a merger with the Conservatives in 2003.

Manning’s strategy proved a winner: the reinvented Conservatives embraced right-wing fiscal and social policies, and Manning’s chief advisor, Stephen Harper, inherited the party’s top post, put an end to twelve years of Liberal rule in 2006, and today governs Canada as its prime minister. Harper’s record is entirely in keeping with his Albertan Reform roots. His government has cut taxes, embraced austerity, championed free trade, sought (and failed) to repeal same-sex marriage, weakened gun control laws, increased defense spending, piloted a muscular foreign policy, and gutted environmental protections (in his first year in office, he pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Accords). Like Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States, Manning and his acolytes succeeded in putting Canada on a hard rightward course.

While Manning and his followers were planning their takeover of the federal conservatives, Ontario was the theater of its own right-wing revolution. Manning fellow-traveler Mike Harris, provincial premier between 1995 and 2002, won election thanks to a team of advisers who had cut their teeth on Republican campaigns south of the border. Drawing inspiration from Thatcher, Reagan, and economist Friedrich Hayek, they concocted Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution,” an ambitious neoliberal blueprint aimed at shrinking Ontario’s government. Harris’s platform trumpeted that “government isn’t working anymore. The system is broken.” In his two terms, Harris kept his word. He cut tax rates by 30 percent, slashed spending, shrank welfare rolls, forced the “able-bodied” into “workfare,” privatized public services, and took the fight to organized labor. He masterminded the sale of an Ontario highway to private interests, replaced card checks with secret ballots to hinder unionization drives, and went to court in (unsuccessful) attempts to have public sector strikes declared illegal.

Ford called to “Get the government out of our backyards,” ranted against a pesticide ban as “dictatorship,” and condemned regulations protecting trees as “communism.”

This is precisely the political matrix that Rob Ford drew from to craft his populist message. For all their semantic discombobulation, his fiery tirades as city councilor were always of an ideological piece. He called to “Get the government out of our backyards,” ranted against a pesticide ban as “dictatorship,” and condemned regulations protecting trees as “communism.” He placed his public service under the sign of Mike Harris, whose Common Sense Revolution Ford’s father had helped wage as a member of provincial parliament (a portrait of Harris hangs in Ford’s city hall office). In 2010 Ford campaigned on an anti-tax, small-government, anti-union program, summed up in his catchy slogan: “Stop the gravy train.” His platform was the work of Mark Towhey, a free market true believer who once proposed selling Toronto’s subway to the private sector, shutting the city’s surface transit network entirely, and auctioning off the idled buses and streetcars. Ford’s campaign tapped widespread anger at a thirty-nine-day walkout by city employees in 2009, which left the incumbent mayor so unpopular that he declined to stand for reelection. Ford promised to privatize garbage collection and repeal the city’s fair wage policy, which requires that all city workers—whether they are unionized or employed by contractors—be paid union wages.

Ford’s neoliberal platform and populist street cred made right-wing strategists and editorialists swoon in 2010. Maclean’s magazine hailed him as a “political genius.” Although the Globe and Mail stopped short of endorsing him, they enthused that he had “been a good city councilor for 10 years,” praised his tax- and budget-cutting agenda, and agreed that it was high time to stop “appeasing” unions. Their resident right-wing columnist Margaret Wente trumpeted Ford’s victory in Sarah Palin-esque terms: “the masses have good reasons for revolting. . . . The problem is simple. People have a lot more government than they can or will pay for. Mr. Ford and Tea Partiers know that.”

His election was nothing short of a right-wing consecration. Harper’s finance minister (a close friend of the Ford family who had served in Harris’s provincial cabinet) and Harris attended Ford’s victory party. At his inauguration, the chain of office was placed around his neck by none other than Don Cherry, the flamboyantly dressed former professional hockey player, one-time Team Canada head coach, and NHL commentator, whose fierce patriotism, celebration of fighting in hockey, defense of traditional family values, outspoken support for Harper, and on-air insults of French Canadians make him an icon of Canadian right-wing populism. Declaring the election a victory over “these left-wing-pinkos” who ride bicycles and skip church, Cherry predicted that “He’s going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever seen as far as I’m concerned. And put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks.”

Once the Conservatives took the full measure of Ford’s electoral appeal in a city that has long been a Liberal party fortress, they happily plugged him into their long-term Ontario strategy. Here was a genuine, Canadian-grown Tea Party insurgency whose flames the Conservative party could fan and whose power its leaders thought they could harness. Though Ford bankrolled his campaign with loans from his family, the big Conservative donors who had supported his principal opponent switched horses, paying off Ford’s $600,000 in campaign debt.

Ford’s campaign manager went on to manage the Conservatives’ campaign in Ontario in the 2011 federal elections and today runs a political consulting firm with the president of the Ontario Conservative Party. Ford campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the Conservatives in 2011, contributing to an unexpectedly strong showing in the Toronto metro area. A grateful Harper invited Ford on a fishing trip at his summer residence and attended a barbecue at Ford’s mother’s home. Praising the Fords as a “great Conservative political dynasty” (a nod to Ford’s father and his brother Doug, who sits on city council), Harper compared how Ford “is cleaning up the NDP mess here in Toronto” (referring to Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party) to the way he himself was fixing the “left-wing mess federally.” Conservative strategists saw in Ford the key to winning Ontario provincial elections and making inroads in Toronto in the 2015 federal elections. Ford had become a rising, well-connected Tory star with a seemingly bright future.

In retrospect, it’s nothing short of astonishing just how much dysfunction the Canadian right was willing to put up with in order to stand by its man in Toronto. Months after news emerged that a video of the mayor smoking crack might exist, Harper was still happy to engineer photo ops with Ford and publicly support the mayor’s reelection campaign. As recently as last October, a leading corporate lawyer and Conservative fundraiser reaffirmed his support for the embattled Ford, declaring that his “economic record is spectacular.” It was only when police confirmed the existence of the crack video that the same right-wing political formations, leaders, and media outlets who had jumped on Ford’s bandwagon and made him their political creature scrambled for the exits.

Ford’s rise was also a symptom of deep-rooted local problems long in the making. Toronto is today paying the price for postwar suburban sprawl and chronic underinvestment in infrastructure. The city said no to subways in a 1912 referendum—though it did build an extensive streetcar system and, after second thoughts, revisited the subway question in 1946. The city’s first subway line opened in 1954, its second in 1966. This coincided with rapid postwar growth, which accelerated when the rise of Québec separatism in the 1970s prompted many nervous Canadian corporations to relocate to Toronto from Montréal. Provincial and municipal authorities directed growth to the suburbs by channeling money into new roads, highways, and water and sewer lines. Planners mandated low-density development, ensuring that Toronto sprawled beyond its core. The city’s third subway line, originally conceived as a major artery in the western suburbs, fell victim to a sad concert of baroque compromises and budget cuts that has become an all too familiar tune in Toronto transit planning. It opened in 1985 and runs a mere 6.4 kilometers.

Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution could not have come at a worse time for Toronto. With the metro region already fast outgrowing the city’s straining infrastructure, his predecessor as premier proposed a new subway to link the communities just north of Toronto; once the budgetary pork was trimmed and served up, only two additional absurdly short subway lines were begun. Upon taking office, Harris canceled one of the subways, spitefully ordering an already-completed station filled in to insure that construction could never be restarted (the second project has operated since 2002, a 5.5 kilometer–long rump subway that sees few passengers). Harris also offloaded responsibility for funding public housing and social programs from the province onto cities, and at the same time dramatically reduced provincial transfers to urban areas (from 4.1 percent of provincial GDP in 1994 to 2.9 percent in 2002). Harris pushed through the amalgamation of Toronto and five neighboring municipalities in 1998, promising that it would reduce operating costs (it hasn’t). This urban fusion transformed Toronto, welding vast suburban communities to a densely urbanized downtown to create the fifth-largest city in North America. The incorporation of Toronto’s inner suburbs into the city also redrew its political map, folding the more conservative voices of the periphery into the electoral mix.

Toronto’s social fabric has become distended by widening gaps between rich and poor, a shrinking middle class, and increasing class segregation.

Toronto today is a city of neoliberal contrasts. On the one hand, it is booming: its economy contributes 20 percent of Canada’s GDP; it is home to 40 percent of Canadian businesses’ head offices and to the largest financial services sector in North America after New York; its population grows by 100,000 each year; and over half of the city’s diverse residents were born outside Canada. On the other hand, its social fabric has become distended by widening gaps between rich and poor, a shrinking middle class, and increasing class segregation. Toronto’s downtown is prosperous and dynamic, while its inner suburbs tend to be poorer, majority immigrant, and majority non-white. Skyrocketing housing values and business-friendly zoning policies have made Toronto a developers’ paradise, transformed the skyline into a Dubai-on-Lake-Ontario of glass-clad luxury condo towers, fueled downtown gentrification, and swelled what the Bank of Canada warns is one of the biggest unburst real estate bubbles on the planet.

Toronto’s aging and inadequate infrastructure has made it all the more difficult to meet the challenges of growth and amalgamation, let alone to mend a fraying social fabric. The metro area grew from 3 to 6 million inhabitants between 1971 and 2011, and virtually all that growth came in the suburbs. Scarce public transit and strained social services beyond downtown have worked to accentuate social gaps between core and suburbs. Toronto today is one of the worst congested cities in the world: 70 percent of the metro area’s inhabitants drive to work, making the 401 the most heavily trafficked highway in North America and forcing automobilists to endure average commute times longer even than those in Los Angeles. In a 2013 report, the Toronto Board of Trade—hardly a champion of tax-and-spend profligacy—estimated that Toronto’s aging transportation infrastructure cost the city $6 billion per year in lost productivity and declared it the local economy’s “Achilles’ heel . . . woefully inadequate for a region of six million people.” In their conclusion, they all but begged the city and province to raise taxes and spend more on public transit.

Ford didn’t just carry the banner for a generic tax revolt; he channeled suburban rage against gridlocked roads, downtown privilege, and a perception that the city was pouring prodigious resources into wasteful center-city projects at their expense, all summed up in his campaign slogan “Stop the war on the car.” Ford opposed further construction of streetcars because they stole precious asphalt from automobiles, railed against bike lanes, and blamed cyclists for collisions with automobiles (“it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”) As city councilor for the suburban district of Etobicoke, he preached a narrow vision of the city as a provider of only skeletal services, criticizing municipal support for the symphony orchestra, ballet, and opera as “embarrassing” instances “of the poor taxpayer . . . getting screwed left, right and center.” He showed little concern for the city’s poor, opposing the construction of homeless shelters and public housing: “People do not want government housing built in the city of Toronto. They want roads fixed, more police presence, but they don’t want more government housing that will depreciate the value of their own property.” Ford’s two signature campaign promises—to repeal the city’s $60 vehicle registration fee and its land transfer tax—spoke to the most powerful symbols of middle-class suburban identity of all: the automobile and the detached, single-family home. It is largely inhabitants of the suburban communities that the city had neither the means nor the ambition to integrate into the urban fabric who make up what has come to be referred to as “Ford Nation.” The maps of pre- and post-amalgamation Toronto correspond almost perfectly to the 2010 electoral map: Ford came out ahead in virtually every district that joined Toronto in 1998 (but we shouldn’t forget that he captured 29 percent of the downtown vote too).

Whatever he was up to on his own time, in city hall Ford delivered. He repealed the vehicle registration fee and removed bike lanes. He pushed the sale of a sizeable block of the city’s public housing to generate revenue (though he reversed his position in 2012). Taking advantage of unions’ reluctance to strike with so many voters still angry over the 2009 work stoppage, Ford won deep concessions from city workers, privatized garbage collection in western Toronto, and successfully lobbied the province to legislate away transit workers’ right to strike. In a repeat of the short-sighted compromises that have plagued past transit planning, Ford first canceled an ambitious plan for a new light-rail network and then committed nearly $3 billion for a modest three-station extension to an existing subway line serving the eastern suburbs.

The real story in Toronto, then, is not Rob Ford. It is how three decades of creeping neoliberalism have made it possible for one of North America’s most diverse cities in one of the west’s most robust democracies to elect a right-wing populist. It is how successive federal governments—Liberal and Conservative alike—shrank government spending by 20 percent as a share of GDP since the early 1990s and flattened the tax structure (Canadian businesses now pay one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the developed world). It is how right-wing parties and pundits have successfully reshaped the national conversation so that taxes and government spending seem like ills in and of themselves. It is how calls for lower taxes can gain the most traction in places where taxes are lowest—like Toronto, which already enjoys some of the lowest property taxes in North America. It is how cities like Toronto spent penuriously on their urban environments, leaving them ill-equipped for the future. And it is how voters in precisely those Toronto neighborhoods that have suffered the most from shrinking government threw their support behind a man who promised to reduce services even further. Just as progressive Americans have had to ask themselves what’s the matter with Kansas, Canadians need to think about what’s wrong in Etobicoke.

The nominally nonpartisan character of local elections in Ontario has made it easier for Conservatives to erase their associations with Ford (in most places in Canada, candidates for local office do not run under party banners). Others have resorted to bad faith to cover the tracks leading from Ford to neoliberalism. In a classic case of protesting too much, the Globe and Mail recently ran a masthead editorial insisting that Ford was a “non-conservative.” When Toronto’s antiquated power and drainage systems were overwhelmed by a powerful summer storm in 2013, leaving public transit stilled, commuters stranded, streets and roadways flooded, and nearly half a million without power, Margaret Wente complained that “it’s begun to feel too uncomfortably Third Worldish here in Canada.” She forgot to remind readers that it’s precisely the anti-government mantra she constantly relays that got the city into this mess. Ford is living proof that Canada’s Conservatives are happy to play with right-wing populist fire.

Fortunately, there is reason for guarded optimism. In 2011 a social democratic party became the official opposition for the first time in Canadian history (although the party leader Thomas Mulcair’s worrying promise that he would never raise personal income taxes suggests he may try to transform the NDP into a Canadian version of Tony Blair’s New Labour). Recent polls suggest that the frontrunner in Toronto’s 2014 mayoral election is Olivia Chow, a former NDP member of parliament with a long history of progressive grassroots activism and real expertise in transit policy. Torontonians might also draw inspiration from what is going on in Los Angeles, which has successfully navigated California’s notoriously tax-allergic politics to imagine a public-transit future beyond its infamous dependence on the automobile. In only twenty years, LA has built a rail-based transit system substantially bigger than Toronto’s, and in 2008 Angelenos even approved a tax hike to cover the costs of continued expansion. The Ford debacle should serve as a wake-up call to Torontonians—and Canadians more broadly. They are overdue for a serious conversation about taxes, inequality, urban policy, environmental sustainability, and the public good.

Paul Cohen is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.

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