If I had to define "tragedy," I'd say it's that which cannot be seen to be inevitable until it's happened. If true, then Mayor David Miller and his supporters must be feeling straight-up Shakespearean.
It's tempting to make comparisons between His Worship and a certain Danish Prince of Bardic renown. English professors maintain one was undone by his hubris - and the media attribute the same to the second.
But following a 23-22 vote that deferred a decision on a sorely needed land transfer tax and vehicle registration fee (worth $356 million yearly) until October, hindsight is kicking in with a vengeance.
The mayor is now saying he underestimated the tenacity of the Toronto Real Estate Board and his opponents on council and that he ought to have communicated more forcefully with pols being lobbied by business groups.
It's a breach that council's free marketers leapt into, knowing full well that most residents lack a basic understanding of how cities work.
"We all say we're against [provincial social service] downloading," said Councillor Michael Thompson who voted for deferral during the debate on Monday, July 16. "Yet we're saying it's okay to download [more taxes] on the citizens of Toronto."
Debunking this should have been a slam dunk. Thompson chose not to mention, of course, that property taxes would have to be raised. Such increases, incidentally, put the greatest burden on those least able to pay: tenants pay more proportionately than homeowners for the services they get, a leftover from the days when they weren't allowed to vote.
And they're still disenfranchised compared to lobbyists for the Toronto Real Estate Board.
The argument that council can't implement new taxes because it "wasn't an election issue" is the height of disingenuous populist bullshit. I thought selecting people to keep city services running on something more than bubble gum and sarcasm was why we, you know, have elections at all.
When good ideas are pitted against good strategies, the latter win.
Behold, here's how it works: grandstand over unfixed roads dating back to amalgamation. When the mayor moves to raise taxes to fix the roads, act incensed that the mayor would have the gall to raise taxes when he can't even fix the roads. Then, with even less money to fix the roads, resume grandstanding - the longer the better - since you're basically killing time until McDonald's buys us.
But what of the proposed alternative to taxes: hope the province will have a collective aneurysm and decide right after an election to upload the cost of all its services? They already answered that one: New City Of Toronto Act. Council, they concluded, should be the bad guy, raise taxes and leave the province out of it.
"I agree with putting pressure on the province," Miller said last week. "But my view is that it's unrealistic to expect [them] to upload $500 million when it hasn't happened in a decade."
Miller's been lobbying for uploading since the day he took office. Until now, council's right wing called his efforts buck-passing. Now that it's the way to stave off taxes, Miller dissers can't get that buck out the door fast enough.
Catching up with exec member Brian Ashton, who voted against the mayor, (changing his mind between the exec meeting and council), I find he doesn't disagree with Miller on the larger fiscal issues, saying his vote was not against the mayor, but for better communication.
"I think this is an opportunity to invite the Board of Trade and the Real Estate Board to see our books, to prove that the financial problem is severe," he tells me. "My god, we have the finance minister of this country saying, 'Get your own house in order.' We've got a messaging problem. We don't have the disorder they think exists."
The day after the vote, the search for potential cuts was trumpeted in big headlines, though they weren't the scorched-earth policy they were made out to be. The city manager had asked departments to find savings amounting to $100 million, a sign of the central bureaucracy realizing it had to act responsibly.
And, of course, with the press hungering for the most apocalyptic copy, it's not surprising that "Oh my god, the subway!" won out over "Council will consider cuts in September."
Tragedies are tangled affairs. On the one hand, the city needs money. On the other, council progressives needed a lesson in humility. And one wonders if the less than open budget process in May and the mayor's understandable reluctance to open up a holistic review of city spending actually helped make the issue ideological.
"Is this a defeat for the mayor? Yes," said Denzil Minnan-Wong, restraining a smile, after the vote. But that's not all that's on his mind. "Staff haven't been very helpful in revealing the data in their program reviews. I want to work with staff, but they just haven't been forthcoming, frankly."
This is an emergency, precisely the time for Miller to slow down and plug all those gaps that adherents of stripped-down government are so capable of exploiting.
What's at stake is the public city, the shared city, civilization as opposed to the me-first vision of those who have no shared language beyond speaking of, as Oscar Wilde said, the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Hamlet died by poisoned sword. All public sector champions have to endure is poison tongues. Let's get in the game.