Monday, December 3, 2012

Fall from the bully pulpit: Rob Ford and the dubious case of neo-liberal "ethics"

Willy Blomme
Johns Hopkins University

On November 26, the mayor of Canada's biggest city was removed from office. A judge ruled that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had contravened Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and imposed the penalty mandated by the legislation: vacating the office (suspending the decision for 14 days to allow for administrative changes). After a collective moment of stunned silence reactions poured out from public figures, commentators and citizens – ranging from the predictably outraged to the gleeful. Elected mayor two years ago, Ford is a polarizing, controversial and gaffe-prone figure. More importantly, he is a bully. And a bully who engages in the dubious ethical grandstanding so popular with the right today that creates an environment toxic to democratic deliberation.

Rob Ford's two years as mayor are rich in controversy, making it hard to see past the screeching headlines to the substantive damage he has done. A greatest hits of Ford follies includes: repeatedly skipping City Council and Executive Committee meetings to coach his high school football team, commandeering two City buses (and kicking off their paying passengers) to transport the players of his team after a rain-soaked game, getting caught behind the wheel of his SUV reading while driving on the highway, declaring that anyone who commits gun violence in Toronto should be deported from the city, calling in top City bureaucrats to ensure that the road in front of his family business was repaved in time for its 50th anniversary celebration, and skipping the mayor's traditional role at the front of Toronto's million-strong pride parade two years in a row because of a family cottage weekend. (Here is a quick summary of Ford's troublesome decade-long record as a city councillor, including attacks on racialized communities, AIDS victims and cyclists.) 

Given this litany of gaffes, controversies and attacks it is somewhat surprising that what brought Ford down is a relatively minor infraction. He was found guilty of a conflict of interest for speaking to and voting on a motion in Council that excused his repayment - recommended by the City's Integrity Commissioner - of $3,150 in donations to his private football charity raised through fundraising letters sent on City letterhead to lobbyists and corporations. As the judge noted in his decision, the incident was made more serious by Ford's "willful blindness" and "stubborn sense of entitlement (concerning his football foundation) and a dismissive and confrontational attitude to the Integrity Commissioner and the Code of Conduct." From the launch of the case the story played out rather comically like a tale of your regular schoolyard bully. First, Ford vehemently denied that there was any conflict of interest (I did nothing wrong!). Then, in his courtroom testimony he admitted that, despite being a Councillor for ten years and Mayor for two, he had never read the Conflict of Interest Act or the Councillor's Code of Conduct (I didn't know!). Once the verdict came down he immediately lashed out, blaming a "left-wing cabal" for orchestrating an attack (It's not my fault!), painting himself as an innocent victim just trying to help kids (I'm the victim here!). Finally, the day after the verdict he apologized for how others took his words, without admitting any wrongdoing (I'm sorry you feel bad.) 

Before his fall Ford adopted the familiar right wing strategy of painting himself as standing up for "the little guy" by ferreting out "waste" wherever he could. Ford was elected by a majority of voters on a populist promise to rid Toronto of its "gravy train." Exactly what this gravy train referred to was conveniently never specified, though allusions to "waste" and "overspending" were often dropped into the same sentences. The gravy train symbol worked in part because it fit well with Ford's infamous stunt during his decade as a Councillor. Every year when the expenditure reports came out Ford would rail against any Councillor who spent a significant portion of the $50,000 budget allotted to the running of his or her office. He invariably pointed to his own annual office expenditures - ranging from $5 to $10 - as the example of a responsible budget. (It should be noted here that Ford is independently wealthy due to a successful family business.) Office budget spending was an example, in his mind, of a waste of tax-payers' money. This is the familiar neo-liberal calculation: spending = waste = unethical.  This simplistic formulation is more than just an attempt to reorient the focus of ethical concerns in politics, it is an attempt to make spending a matter of ethics rather than politics. By making this shift the right preempts the debate about political priorities that is actually behind decisions about government spending.  It also, conveniently, turns attention away from actual unethical practices. Hence Rob Ford's inability to see - or "willful blindness" to - how his conduct in his conflict of interest case was in fact unethical.

Having fashioned their capes of "spending is wrong" these self-proclaimed ethical crusaders feel free to push around all those who stand in their way. Even when that means taking on the defenders of ethics themselves. From the early days of the Ford administration there were reports that City bureaucrats were afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation. Those fears materialized very publicly when Gary Webster, the chief general manager (and 37-year employee) of the Toronto Transit Commission was fired for giving advice - based on his experience and assessment of transit in the city - to Council that differed from the mayor's preferred plan. A few months later it was the City's Ombudsman who was in the hot seat. Ford's ire was raised by Fiona Crean's report accusing his office of a rushed, compromised and interfering selection process in the appointment of citizens to 120 civic boards and agencies (including directing bureaucrats to remove from newspaper advertisements a reference to seeking “diverse” candidates – this in a city whose motto is “Diversity our strength”). For five hours Crean was subjected to vitriolic attacks from Ford's allies after giving her report to Council. More worryingly, when the report was made public Ford's allies mused openly about not renewing her contract and of cutting resources to her office and that of the Integrity Commissioner's.  

This is a pattern of behaviour that closely mirrors that of the Conservative government in Ottawa. Since gaining power in 2006 the Harper government has adopted a series of bully tactics: it fired the chair of the Canada Nuclear Science Commission for her criticism of the government's running of a nuclear facility hours before she was to appear before a parliamentary committee; it barred scientists working for Environment Canada from speaking to the media; it tabled an omnibus budget bill that amended almost 70 different laws in one fell swoop; and it has a second omnibus bill before the House now. Perhaps most worrisome is Harper's cynical use of a once little-known procedural rule (prorogation) that prematurely ends a parliamentary session, killing all the bills on the order paper. He first used it to avoid a censure motion and later to avoid questions about the handling of Afghan prisoners by Canadian soldiers. This highly suspect use of the rule has spread. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty used it most recently to shut down the legislature upon his resignation, allowing his party to conduct a leadership race hassle free. Explaining his decision to prorogue McGuinty claimed that he did so in order to allow "discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature.” In their abuse of this procedural parliamentary tool Harper and McGuinty have effectively told their respective legislatures "don't get too critical or I will shut you down." This abuse has transformed prorogation into a persistent threat - a Damocles sword - hanging over the heads of legislatures across the country. Just like the Ombudsman and Integrity Commissioner bullied by Rob Ford and his allies, and like the nuclear safety commissioner fired by Harper for raising concerns about a potentially dangerous facility, legislatures are being told that if they are too critical or ask too many questions - essentially, if they do their job - they will be made redundant. This is not only bad news for Canada's democratic institutions, but also for the public that relies on revelations made in these bodies to inform broader democratic deliberation.

There is a culture of intimidation taking hold in Canadian politics.  Here's hoping that Rob Ford's removal from office inspires more of us to stand up to the bullies.

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