Building a Progressive Political Movement at City Hall

Luke Savage, a writer of the Broadbent Institute, published a piece in the Globe and Mail this morning titled “Biting cold exposes rot in city’s attitudes to poverty.” (January 8, 2018) He describes an internal debate in Toronto’s civic administration and then goes on to comment.

Expensive housing proliferates while the needs of middle and low income people are ignored

“This apparent conflict over data has ultimately exposed a much deeper rot, not only in Toronto’s overall attitude towards poverty and homelessness, but in the character of the political consensus that governs it – one that has elevated the market above all else and substituted real human needs for cold economic calculus. Indeed, the city has increasingly become a place of public decay amid private affluence; one where underfunded infrastructure and social services are allowed to co-exist with scorching condo booms and lucrative financial speculation; where an expensive rental market quite literally drives people onto the streets; where, amidst unfathomable wealth, some citizens are forced to suffer in the cold while officials prevaricate about the availability of shelter beds in overcrowded facilities.”

This is a powerful condemnation and Savage points directly at John Tory, Toronto City Council, and other politicians for, “a penny-pinching ethos … that has meant cutting costs and reducing the quality of public services while slashing taxes and public spending.”

This is a good summary of John Tory’s politics and the administration that he leads at city hall. In fact, this approach is typical of almost every municipality in Ontario – keep costs as low as possible, hold the line on property taxes, provide approvals for private developers to build condos and expensive rental accommodation, ignore demands for affordable housing and the crisis of poverty. This is the agenda of the majority of our municipal politicians at a time of unprecedented wealth, and the growing crisis of the poor, young people, and the middle class.

The question, then, is what are we going to do about it? This is an election year and politicians are already working the back rooms to raise the funds and the supporters to get re-elected. This we know. There will never be a change in Toronto politics until a majority of progressives are elected to city council.

There are many reasons why change is difficult: the lack of political party system, the power of incumbency, the low levels of political participation in the grass roots, particularly in the suburbs, and the lack of information at a community level that can hold politicians to account.

It is time to build a progressive political movement in Toronto, Hamilton and across the GTA.

Democracy, Neoliberalism, and Participation

In my latest book, Democracy Rising: Politics and Participation in Canada, I argue that our representative democratic form of government is failing us. Elites, particularly wealthy corporate elites, have captured the political system to promote their own interests.

Not only does government favour corporate development and profits, in the belief that this will increase the country’s wealth and employment, but we have a tax system that benefits the wealthy. The off-shoring of wealth to avoid taxation has become a serious problem. An economic and political system has been developed that benefits the 1%, while the rest of us languish.

All of this inequality, and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, is justified by the ideology of neoliberalism. This is a self-serving theory that promotes rapacious capitalism, inequality, low pay for workers, poor working conditions, and attacks the welfare state as unnecessary and unaffordable. Neoliberalism goes so far as to argue that competition is the natural state of the human condition. It is good for the country and economy because it leads to efficiencies and innovation.

It is a theory that has been adopted by the corporate and political elite in virtually all of the developed countries. Today Donald Trump is the leading advocate, but Canada suffered from the ideology for almost ten years with the Stephen Harper government. Justin Trudeau is leading a government that is pushing back neoliberalism, but the conservative assault on minor tax reform measures shows just how ingrained this ideology has become.

To challenge this ideology in Canada, we have to begin by developing a different ideology, one that stresses co-operation and participation. Competition is not the natural state of the human condition. It was co-operation that led to the development of our civilizations, and working together in a co-operative way is the way we interact at work, politics, public institutions, and private corporations. Humans have a remarkable ability to work together to achieve collective goals.

We have to challenge the neoliberal ideology of selfishness and greed by promoting a participatory culture. I see it emerging everywhere I go: environmental groups, trade unions, co-ops, community groups, clubs, and sporting associations. Democratic organizations are everywhere in our society. They are run democratically, and they provide the way that people can participate. (Last weekend I attended a public meeting about Toronto’s Waterfront called “Waterfront for All.” Well over 300 people were there to talk about the new neighbourhood that is emerging in the city. It was inspiring to see how citizens want to participate in the task of rebuilding our city.)

We need to reform our parliaments and create a workable system of proportional representation, but above all we have to challenge neoliberalism and advocate that we need co-operation, engagement, and participation in all aspects of our lives. That is the only way that we will develop a caring, egalitarian society where everyone has the chance to develop to their own potential.