Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

In absence of leadership, council ignores the mayor and bans plastic bags

By: Metro Canada Published on Thu Jun 07 2012

Well, no one expected that.

Rob Ford said he wanted to remove the five cent fee retailers in Toronto have to charge for plastic bags. He called the “bag tax” irritating. But council wasn't having it. Instead, they opted for a different strategy at yesterday's meeting, voting to ban all point-of-sale plastic bags from city retailers starting January 1, 2013. You won't be able to get a plastic bag in a grocery store in Toronto next year—no matter how many nickels you've got in your pockets.

What started as a political quest to make bags free-of-charge again ended with the city going completely bag-free. Quite literally: Ford wanted to do one thing and his city council did the exact opposite.

Yesterday's mayoral defeat at City Hall was like nothing we've ever seen before, going way beyond the realm of simple political opposition. Certainly David Miller and Mel Lastman—both of whom hardly ever lost votes on the council floor—never saw councillors flip their intended policy upside down.

There was no concern when Miller moved to implement the Vehicle Registration Tax that council would instead give motorists a $60 tax credit. No one worried that Miller's island airport bridge opposition would lead to council endorsing an expansion of the island airport. This kind of thing didn't happen.

Probably because it's easy to sway votes and build support when you actually know how to get along with others and provide effective leadership.

With Ford, however, this bag fee reversal of fortune is just the culmination of a trend that began last year. The mayor's early council losses were mitigated with a widespread desire to find compromise and help the mayor save face. When the public rejected Rob and Doug's waterfront plan, council built a consensus instead of dealing the mayor an outright defeat. Come budget time, councillors were a bit more brazen—they had become more willing to hand the mayor a loss. But even then, most councillors played down the significance of what they'd done.

The transit votes were the turning point. By the time they sat down for their special meeting in March, councillors seemed at peace with the idea of ignoring and contradicting the mayor's goals. With bridges burned and compromise comatose, council looked at Ford's desire for all-underground transit and opted for something completely different.

Yesterday's vote just crystallized it: the mayor is irrelevant. There's no telling what council will do in response to his edicts as councillors are fully prepared to go their own way, often with a brazen disregard for committee recommendations. In the absence of leadership, anything and everything can happen. The only guarantee is that Ford probably won't get his way.

This isn't about left-versus-right. While left-leaning councillors are certainly willing to back items that contradict the mayor, they tend not to be the ones moving the big motions these days. Yesterday, for example, it was two of Ford's hand-picked executive committee members who set the tone for the day. Councillor Michelle Berardinetti was the one who brought the bag fee back onto the agenda in the first place while unlikely rebel Councillor David Shiner championed the ban.

I doubt that many councillors knew they'd end up banning plastic bags when they got to work yesterday. In fact, after the vote, some of them seemed a little mystified. There's no plan in place for implementing this decision—no staff reports, no legal opinions, no consultation or communication strategy . There's a real chance this move could prove to be a disaster.

But that's what happens when the mayor fails to make a compelling case for his desired outcome. That's what happens when the mayor doesn't bother to lead.

This post was originally published at on 2012-06-07T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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