Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Debate Prep: Taking on Rob Ford's favourite talking points

Published on Wed Sep 19 2012

On his returning radio show this past weekend, Mayor Rob Ford took the odd step of challenging members of the media to debate him in the political arena. His challenge came as part of a fiery and mostly confusing rebuke of reporting last week that questioned Ford's alleged use of office staff and resources to help run his high school football program.

Ed Keenan, Senior Editor at The Grid, was quick to accept the mayor's challenge and agree to a debate. But there's been no word yet on whether mayoral staff have started their own prep work. I hear they're pretty busy.

Still, I thought I'd give Keenan a hand by taking a look at some of Ford's most recent talking points. Lately, the mayor's been pushing the idea that his problems—the conflict-of-interest case, the football scandal, concerns about his ability to drive without reading—are due to an interconnected web of left-leaning enemies who are angry about the good work he's done as mayor. (For examples, see the first twenty minutes of his radio show from Sunday or his fired-up speech from Ford Fest.)

But the mayor's conspiracy theories don't hold up to scrutiny. Let's take a look at three of the bigger claims Ford's been making:

Rob Ford's opponents are mad because he saved the city lots of money

This tends to be the one rationale I hear from otherwise level-headed people in defence of Ford. They're frustrated by the mayor's assorted foibles and general demeanour, but they credit him with saving the city some money with tough fiscal policies. Spending was out-of-control under David Miller but now, they figure, the money situation is better.

But I've got a problem with that argument. There's no proof.

Here's a quick graph of Toronto's net operating budget over the last five years. This is the part of the city's overall budget that you actually fund with your property tax dollars:

The Rob Ford era, kicking off in 2011, looks pretty similar to the David Miller era of 2007-2010. And it makes sense that it would: City Manager Joe Pennachetti has made it clear that the city's long-term fiscal policies remain mostly the same as they were under Miller. Plus, inflation is always going to drive costs up, even in the absence of new programs and services.

The Ford team likes to point to the gross operating budget as a measure of their success. And, yeah, they managed to make that budget slightly smaller in 2012 than it was in 2011. But ponder this: why does that matter? If you take away the amounts shown in the chart above, the rest of the operating budget is made up of programs funded by a mix of provincial transfers, user fees and other revenue sources. Cutting the gross budget is as simple as scaling back some programs funded by user fees or insisting that no prior year surplus money go into program delivery.

As a singular achievement, making the gross budget slightly smaller isn't worth celebrating. It's barely worth noticing.

Rob Ford's opponents are mad because he took down the unions

The labour deals Ford struck this past winter do stand as an achievement—no one can take that away from the mayor.

But to present Ford's union talks as a particularly contentious battle that led to huge, immediate savings seems a bit like revisionist history. Remember, the city's major unions approached the mayor early on with an offer to freeze their contract and accept a 0% wage increase over the next three years.

It's not as if the unions came to the mayor playing hardball with a list of demands and Ford kicked the snot out of them. The unions were mostly conciliatory from the outset, and so Ford was able to achieve a good result.

Either way, it's hard to see how Ford's labour deals could inspire much animosity. (His continued talk of contracting out more services, however, could prove to provoke some anger. If he ever gets around to actually doing it.)

Ford is fond of claiming that he's accomplished more in his short time in office than the previous administration accomplished over two terms. But his record is full of holes.

Like a relentless drumbeat, Ford often lists what he sees as his administration's major victories: killing the vehicle registration tax, contracting out garbage collection, negotiating deals with the unions. But the VRT was removed at the very first regular meeting of this council term. Contracting out garbage came soon after, when council approved an RFQ process. And the union deals were finalized early this year.

That leaves a lot of gaps with not a lot of progress to show. It's understandable that Ford doesn't mention things like his bungled transit plan, or that time he accidentally led council toward banning plastic bags, when he rattles off his record, but he sure could stand to have a few more accomplishments to hang his hat on.

If he really wants to compare with the previous administration—who, don't get me wrong, had their own set of problems—he's got to contend with a record that includes a hell of a lot. The David Miller team helped kickstart waterfront development after several years. They evolved the structure of government and won the city some very important powers through the City of Toronto Act. They began a process of transformation for Canada's most notorious public housing project. They rapidly expanded transit service and brought TTC ridership to record highs. And, oh yeah, they received an eight billion dollar funding commitment for transit expansion in this city.

Ford's got a long way to go if he wants to start challenging that record.

And what about ambition? One of the more frustrating things about following the Ford team over the last few months is that they seemingly have no remaining policy goals. The question I most want Rob Ford to answer should be a simple one: what next?

A question, I guess, for another debate.

This post was originally published at on 2012-09-19T00:00:00.000Z

About the author

Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
Website / Twitter / Email Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott


Follow Me on Twitter

Recent Posts

Recent Comments