If you want an omen that the neo- cons are headed for big trouble in the election they just called, check out the statement issued last week by the Toronto City Summit Alliance. Though many of the proposals read like excerpts from a tired old NDP manual, the mere existence of this initiative may prove as important as the provincial election itself.
Entitled Enough Talk, the missive, signed by bankers and business heavyweights as well as labour and community leaders (but noticeably no environmentalists and few ethno-cultural communities), urges more funding for education, public transit and affordable housing, as well as new tax powers and clout for besieged Toronto.
The statement signals that the far-seeing wing of the business class is coming out of its slumber and is ready to take on the neo-con cutters and dissemblers.
The idea that Toronto is a have-not region will provoke laughter in many parts of the country. And the idea that big cities are disposable may sound surprising to people raised to believe that major downtowns are where economies are modernized and therefore where power resides. But the fact is that new freeways of economics and power can bypass big cities and big-city cores as quickly as highways can bypass small towns and their downtowns.
Montreal went into a long decline after the 1960s, when it ceased to serve as the funnel for the grain and other resources from the Canadian West and North being trans-shipped over to Britain.
Toronto faces a similar decline now as its pivotal position in North America - southern Ontario is closer to more major U.S. destinations than any place in the U.S. - loses significance in a service- and knowledge-based economy. When the heavy lifting in the economy was done by manufacturers, it mattered that Toronto was near so many U.S. centres.
But in a service and knowledge economy, while some providers have to be right there on the spot (as with food, for instance), for many, thanks to the digital era, it doesn't matter how far away they are.
The shift away from a strong manufacturing base - the explosive expansion of infill and condo residences in Toronto's core tells the tale of the disappearance of manufacturing in almost all but the food-processing industry - also makes the city socially vulnerable.
As urban analyst Saskia Sassen argues, the elite in old-style manufacturing cities needed workers who were paid well enough to buy the goods they mass-produced. But the new elite in world-class cities, Sassen argues, is made up of lawyers, accountants, brokers and traders dealing with a global economy. As often as not, they're selling into India, where a fraction of 1 per cent of the population is equivalent to a mass market in Toronto. And what they're hiring in Toronto is security guards, concierges, couriers: not people who'll ever buy their products, but people who can be hired on the cheap.
Many in this new elite live in the exurbs, the burbs beyond the burbs, as close to 705 as 905. These locales are the preferred stomping grounds of housing developers, the cement and construction industry and mass retailers. Small entrepreneurs can make a go of it in the big city, where the word on the street counts for something, but where signs have to be seen in drive-by traffic and the word comes from TV ads, only mega-retailers can survive.
It's this shift from old to new in urban elites that accounted for neo-conservative breakthroughs across North America during the 1990s, accompanied by rapid increases in hunger and homelessness, previously thought to have become extinct in the developed countries. Tolerance, if not enjoyment of, the decline of big cities was part and parcel of this trend.
Toronto got few of the government-financed goodies that other cities vying for international attention and leadership get - aquariums, botanical centres and the like. Toronto got few of the government-financed start-up programs appreciated by the "creative class" - the main drivers of cultural industries and the knowledge economy, but a pathetically unorganized group incapable of translating its significance into political power.
Toronto got none of the things like better minimum wage laws and affordable housing needed to keep working-class people from falling into an underclass of the poor. And Toronto got none of the deluxe bailouts that go to other regions or sectors when they face unexpected downturns. When Toronto finally got post-SARS help, it was in the form of a party paid for mostly by the private sector, and the party got crashed by beef industry promotors.
It's eight years since the election of the Ontario Conservatives and a decade since the federal Liberals got heavy into downloading. The de-funding and deregulation championed by those who make their money off the city, not in the city, has left a trail of Walkerton, SARS, mad cow and Aylmer mystery meat.
Until recently, the discerning big-picture business types confined their grumbling to cocktail parties. It's as common in business as in labour circles to stay mum when someone from inside the ranks goes over the top. But the destabilization threatened by the nouveaux riches has pressured the hegemonic, far-seeing economic elite to go public.
Rather than challenge their crude parvenu colleagues frontally in the name of sound economics, on the eve of a provincial election they have changed the subject and put the needs of the city front and centre.
Now that more genteel blue-blood reps have declared some political independence, the investments that allow the city to generate innovation, stimulate entrepreneurship and sustain the physical environment and the social diversity, civility and consensus-building that support such activities can make a comeback.
The neo-con Tories have already lost the election for local business and civic leaders. The rest is up to the leaders of the opposition parties.