I occasionally wonder if the design of City Hall's council chamber was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Gallery rows resembling those in an amphitheatre are a subtle reminder that all politics is theatre.
And all the men and women merely players. If you bristle to think we're merely spectators, remember that the actors are themselves scripted.
Never is this truer than during budget clashes. And one man during his time plays many parts. In this instance, for Denzil Minnan-Wong the role at December 10's meeting was briefly that of cross-partisan unifier.
The right-of-centre Don Valley councillor has had nothing but vitriol for the budget process and those who drive it. Yet following his standard motions to look into "monetizing" (i.e. privatizing) city assets, in this case in order to fix roads and repair rec centres, Minnan-Wong found Mayor David Miller's arm on his shoulder in a jocular display of good will. What happened?
"With the Tories getting kicked in the head over not funding infrastructure, Denzil has become a Keynesian," says councillor Joe Mihevc.
To be fair, "state of good repair backlog" has been Minnan-Wong's big issue through numerous budgets.
Only now he doesn't have to reconcile good community infrastructure with his inborn aversion to taxes. Infrastructure money is likely coming from on high in the new year.
Minnan-Wong's motion at this meeting to investigate monetizing Toronto Parking and Toronto Hydro was voted down narrowly, even with mayoral support. But what was it about anyway? Recall that the so-called "blue ribbon panel," assembled largely at Minnan-Wong's behest following the first round of the land transfer tax debate, recommended that staff consider selling assets.
Assuming he hasn't just forgotten, why would Minnan-Wong instruct staff to do what they're already doing? And why did the mayor join him? For Miller, it's good theatre: federal Finance Minister Joe Flaherty favours the short-term slash-and-burn of asset sales. If the mayor can publicly display support for a motion to consider it, that helps his case for more federal money. And if that motion fails, all the better.
As for Minnan-Wong, well, his motion just looks good to his fans. But on the other hand, he and others in his camp may be aware of an emerging chance to push their agenda.
"People out of a job aren't going to benefit from this so-called stimulus budget [the $1.6 billion]," says Scarborough councillor Michael Thompson. "The private sector is interested in collaborating, and we aren't building enough sports facilities."
There it is. Conservatives promoting private investment in public services see opportunity in crumbling infrastructure and large capital budgets aimed at cushioning the recession. Free-market ideologues pull the state-of-good-repair puck back to their end.
But SOGR is a broad category that includes everything from an updated sewer system to road repair. The former kinds of things are within municipal means, the latter needs money from other levels. In general, the left tends to conjure SOGR when seeking cash from upper governments; the right to embarrass the left.
All in all, there's a lot of excitement about the possibility of federal money - but anxiety, too, about how it will be used. "Leave it up to us. Let us propose the projects," says Mihevc. "Put a splash pad there, a soccer field here, you change neighbourhoods. We're funding the big stuff, but do you know what just $45 million would do in the wards? We could change the face of this city."