Kicking some Ashton
Updated: Old news: Mayor Miller asked Brian Ashton for his resignation and got it. Not so old news: even though Councillor Gord Perks apologized for calling Ashton a weasel, many in the commentariat are essentially calling him that. Today’s news: Ashton is busy defending himself. Tomorrow’s news, today: in the three weeks since the vote, Ashton’s decision to cast his lot against the Mayor has done far more good than harm, and in the long term it will do still more good and even less harm. In about a year’s time we’ll all be thanking him.
Before Ashton cast his lot against Miller back in mid-July, the situation was thus: the city was in a fiscal crisis that held absolutely no consequences whatsoever for politicians or the public. For years the city drained its reserves, tacked on small, reasonable increases to property taxes, raised the odd user fee, and blamed Queen’s Park. At budget time, getting anyone—in the Mayor’s camp or among his opponents—to talk honestly and openly about the city’s finances was like pulling teeth. All you could get was trumped-up rhetoric about uploading. Meanwhile, Queen’s Park has been running budget surpluses and every party in the legislature believes social services costs should be uploaded. Think about that for a minute: there is unanimity on the issue of uploading, yet nothing is being uploaded. Why not? Probably because both City Hall and Queen’s Park wanted to sort it out discreetly at a time most convenient for them, probably including a few political horse trades. And they would have been happy to not have this discussion get too detailed in front of the public. The Mayor’s plan, which was to tax property sales, was just a means of keeping up the charade: it would have raised just enough money to keep stalling. This is the sort of situation that can make voters’ blood boil, if only they can be compelled to stop and think about it, which is what Brian Ashton made everybody do.
The worst that has happened so far is that city hall has begun talking—begun talking? Take cover!—about $100 million worth of cuts to a $7.8 billion budget. Everyone—the TTC, the cops, the firemen—promptly balked at the idea. So it’s back in the Mayor’s corner: the latest news is that we’ll simply have to start talking about which city services we are going to do without. Now that’s a conversation. Which services would Miller cut? Which would his opponents cut? Since there’s no clear majority on the council floor when it comes to taxes and services, there will have to be detailed proposals from both sides, so this could be the kind of discussion that separates the men and women from the boys and girls. Some people fear this conversation, but I think it’s time we had it, just to see what kind of consensus emerges. Perhaps someone will have the nerve to suggest outright war with Queen’s Park: refuse to deliver the services whose costs they refuse to upload. That’s against the law, of course, but so is the city running a deficit, so I reckon city hall and the law make asses of each other pretty much on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, the heat has been turned up on the provincial election campaign (more than I ever thought it would be) and the issue of the municipal fiscal crisis will certainly get asked of the leaders during debates. No matter what, a mayor and a premier have to map a sustainable way out of this mess in the next eight months. If not, Toronto’s 2008 budget process will be like an elaborate version of The Game of Life—let’s all spin the dial and follow the squares on the game board and make pretend decisions and spend make-believe money—that only ends in real-life bankruptcy. That won’t happen, because Brian Ashton sounded the clarion call.