How not to handle a political hot potato

How not to handle a political hot potato

If a government wants to introduce new taxes, it helps to manufacture a crisis. You have to make it seem as if there is no choice but to raise taxes, by poisoning the alternative: voting against new taxes means closing recreation centres and swimming pools, it means trash in the streets, and so on and so on. This is exactly what David Miller said yesterday, the day he lost a crucial vote on the proposed new land transfer and vehicle registration taxes. Too little too late: Miller has been conspicuously silent on this issue up until yesterday, and the voting result amounts to one very badly fumbled hot potato.

The key to manufacturing a crisis is to act like it’s real. Which means you have to beat the drum early and often, and never waver in the face of predictably vicious (and drearily predictable) attacks from the likes of Case Ootes and the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation. In this case, Miller had an extra advantage: he didn’t have to pretend there was a crisis, because the city’s financial crisis was totally real. Even so, you’ve got to do your legwork on your crisis PR, and on this score, the last few months are full of missed opportunities.

-April: in order to balance the budget, the city drains the last of its reserve funds. There is now nothing left in the bank: after taking $160 million from reserves to balance the books in 2006 and $283 million in 2007, barely a penny remains for next year’s inevitable overruns. The city picks a fight with Queen’s Park over $71 million — a pittance compared to the real numbers at stake — and loses. But Miller acts like it’s just another year of being broke, no different than any other year. There is chatter about new revenue sources throughout city hall, but no one is ramping up the doom-and-gloom-unless rhetoric or raising the political stakes.

-May: the city conducts four community consultations about new revenue sources. These meetings are the perfect opportunity for Miller to act like he means it: go out and convince concerned citizens that the city needs more money. The mayor and his allies take a pass; instead, the consultations are chaired by a civil servant with no political stake in the issue. Miller says that he’ll attend one of the meetings, but doesn’t say which one. Eventually he ducks all four. The head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is so incensed that he actually hunts the mayor down at another event to confront him. Meanwhile, council’s right-wingers all show up to the consultations; some of them love the topic so much they attend more than one of the meetings. From this point on the no-new-taxes people have the political upper hand, because they are the only ones showing any conviction about the matter.

-June: The powers-that-be announce what they had decided before they held the consultations, namely, that they will forge ahead with only the land-transfer and vehicle-registration taxes, because these measures will affect the least number of people. This could have been sold as a nice compromise solution, like so: “We told you we absolutely had to have new revenue sources, and we were going to tax your booze and your movie tickets and a whole bunch of other stuff, but we’ve listened to the people, and we’ve decided to implement only these two little taxes.” But you can only sell it as a compromise if you’ve been out there pushing the hard line for the previous two months, which no one did.

The elegant but telling photo on the Star’s web site shows Miller sitting with his head in his hands, and by my read his body language says, “We are so f***ed.” Now he’s got a crisis.