Try as we might, we can’t ignore Rob Ford—and neither should John Tory

Try as we might, we can’t ignore Rob Ford—and neither should John Tory

(Image: Giordano Ciampini)

Promises, promises. John Tory assured us he would make city hall boring again. He even held up boredom as an ideal, the grand capital-P Promise embodied by his administration. “If anybody said city hall was boring but productive—better results, but boring—I would take that as a major compliment, as a badge of honour and as a sure ticket to re-election,” he told the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba last December. Then came former mayor Rob Ford’s turn at the microphone.

On January 19, Ford, now demoted back to his old job as councillor for Etobicoke North’s Ward 2, attacked Tory’s plan to expand transit service, happily drawing a comparison to his own time as mayor: “If he wants to undo all the money I saved that’s up to him, but that’s not what the people voted him to do.” Tory and Ford traded verbal jabs all through the rest of January, but Ford landed more punches, at one point saying Tory was “making David Miller look fiscally responsible.” The best comeback Tory could muster was “I won the election.” As if that would shut Ford up. The ex-mayor won’t stop upping the ante: last week he got himself thrown out of a council meeting over a $20,000 proposal to send a delegation to Milan for Expo 2015. That story led the CBC’s local evening newscast. They carried Ford’s scrum live.

Ford’s return to prominence is welcomed by approximately nobody in the city’s political class. His renewed presence on television newscasts acts like a kind of post-traumatic stress trigger. To some degree, his rise from the ashes is a media creation: the Tory administration’s efforts at workmanlike dullness have created a vacuum. The only thing that abhors a vacuum more than nature is a news broadcast, and Ford can be counted on to fill it. The shtick he’s pulling now is the same shtick he was pulling a decade ago: confrontational, conflict-driven, sound-bite politics.

But the media are always buying that, no matter who’s selling. The fact is that Ford is more skilled than any of his council colleagues at using the media to his own ends, and it’s those ends Tory truly needs to worry about. Rob Ford single-handedly built one of the most powerful political movements in recent Canadian history: you can dismay or decry Ford Nation all you want but you cannot dismiss it, not even now. During last year’s campaign, when Ford’s health forced him to pass the baton to his lesser brother Doug, Ford Nation still nearly delivered an upset victory. Today Ford Nation is like the creature in Little Shop of Horrors: weakened, it needs to be fed. Ford is feeding it. And Tory is letting him.

So, for that matter, is the entirely of council’s centre and left, who refuse to acknowledge the genius of Ford’s methods. Because municipal politics has no party structures, its political movements, moreso than in any other forum, are rhetorically constructed, the result of pure affinity between people and political statements. To put it with less Poindexter: the only way to create a popular coalition like Ford Nation is to say it exists, and then to will it into being by sloganeering about respect for taxpayers. No one takes out an official membership in Ford Nation; its members hear Ford talk on the television and they say to the other person on the couch, “that guy’s on to something,” and they’re in.

Meanwhile, as affinity-building, voter-focused appeals go, the left’s favourite comeback to Ford—various iterations of “we are not just taxpayers, we are citizens”—is the least effective political slogan of all time. It appeals to no one other than those who already oppose Ford and does nothing to enlarge their tent. It’s a meta-appeal that places them above Ford and above politics. It is designed to give them permission to ignore Ford. This is not a strategy for success. Here’s what Tory must do to keep Ford in check:

1. Embrace the theatrics of city hall. Legislatures are political theatres—forums for drama. Tory seems to believe that the mere act of diligently going about the business of government is enough to make him a good mayor, but it’s not: he’s got to script its public performances more tightly to feature a steady stream of pre-arranged, half-improvised confrontations—reasonableness versus invective, horse sense versus ideology, better service versus cutbacks—that make him look good, allow him to keep chipping away at Ford Nation, and put Ford himself on the defensive. This idea will not come as news to Tory or his staff, though they may not have realized the magnitude of their particular challenge: a play majestically titled Boredom might not be a shoo-in for a successful four-year run at The Clamshell. To that end they should bear in mind the following corollary:

1(a). Know how to make the stage go dark. If Tory’s team leaves the stage empty but forgets to turn off the spotlight and the microphone, his opponents will step up to the microphone, Ford first among them. When the show’s over you shut down the theatre. David Miller was a master of this tactic. He kept a remarkably tight lid on information in the weeks leading up to his budget (which left his opponents with nothing to talk about) then dispensed with the budget announcement in a single day. Tory’s big rookie mistake in his first budget was announcing an $86-million provincial loan before it was a done deal, only to have it fall through. Now the world gets to watch while he struggles to patch both the budget hole and the PR damage. It’s nothing but cannon fodder for his opponents, and none of it should ever have reached public view.

2. Unleash the hound. Where is Denzil Minnan-Wong when you need him? I wrote back in December that Minnan-Wong was a brilliant choice for deputy mayor because he’d be the one Tory could send to wrestle in the mudpit. Ford will always try to push his way into the spotlight; someone has to push back, and that someone shouldn’t be the mayor.

3. Have a laugh. With Minnan-Wong handling the dirty work, Tory should be left free to enjoy the thrust and parry of his work. Nothing conveys confidence better than humour. Tory’s best moments in the 2014 campaign came when he was cracking jokes at Ford’s expense. At the Board of Trade debate, when Ford tried to insist he was “a silent partner” in his family firm, Tory quipped, “that’d be a first”—a remark that caused even Ford himself to crack up. Ford’s evil superpower lies in the fact that the more his opponents seem scared of him the stronger he grows. Laughter will deflate him.