The left gambles with Mel

Rating: NNNNNIt has not been a stellar three years for the lefties on city council. Every time the political chips.

Rating: NNNNN

It has not been a stellar three years for the lefties on city council. Every time the political chips were down, it seemed, there was the left wing voting right along with the right-wing flow in favour of:

* the Olympics

* more bucks for the cops while other departments were being cut back

* a target policing program to oust homeless people from the parks

* user fees for recreational services

* less money for community grants

* a massive redevelopment proposal for the port lands, and

* a property tax freeze the city can’t afford.

What else can you do when the proverbial political deck is stacked?

Tory-imposed amalgamation had changed all the rules. The old city of Toronto was no more. Politicos from the ‘burbs controlled the balance of power on the new 57-member council.

“We had to take a defensive position,” says Jack Layton. “We feared all the things we’d worked for in the old city of Toronto would go.”

“People expected us to carry on as if amalgamation hadn’t happened,” adds Pam McConnell. “But the reality is that it had. We had to put aside our mourning for the old city and engage in finding solutions.”

As if the political realities weren’t discouragement enough, Joe Pantalone says post-amalgamation financial constraints made creative solutions impossible.

“The urban area was under siege,” he says. It’s a small miracle, Pantalone says, that the left was able to achieve what it did, given the pressures.

But now that a municipal election is brewing, it’s time to take stock of what the city won and lost when its left wing — Layton, Pantalone, McConnell, Olivia Chow, Joe Mihevic, David Miller, Howard Moscoe, Michael Prue and Kyle Rae — took to bargaining for small favours from the Mel machine.

“The bottom line doesn’t look very good. Layton admits, “There have been some notable disaster zones.”

In truth, there have been successes, but they are modest. The left did manage to:

* help overturn council’s ban on raves

* put the police union in its place over True Blue, its fundraising effort to target politicians

* persuade the city not to pursue an appeal in the Jane Doe sexual assault suit against the police

* establish a tenants defence fund

* open up a modest number of shelter spaces

* squeeze money from council for some 200 affordable housing units

* establish a housing-first policy for disposable land, and

* put opposition to city plans to send garbage to the Adams Mine on the political front burner.

All important stuff, but minor in terms of protecting the infrastructure of city life.

“A lot of (the left councillors) are our allies, and we don’t want to isolate them,” says an executive with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which has been stymied in its efforts to create enough shelters and affordable housing for the city’s growing numbers of homeless.

“When we phone they say they’ll help us, but they’re often disappointing in their follow-through.’

That’s not to say that substantial time and effort have not been poured by the left into issues like homelessness, child poverty and the environment. More often than not, however, the money hasn’t been put behind the political platitudes when it came time for council to ante up.

Reduce emissions

For example, an ambitious environmental plan to increase park space, increase the diversion of solid waste, clean up contaminated lands, reduce toxic air emissions and restore rivers, streams and the waterfront, among other things, received a pittance from council when all was said and done.

“It’s nowhere near enough,” says Lisa Corbett of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Says councillor Michael Walker, a Tory turned moderate: “We might have had a more creative council with various orbs of influence and power instead of everything springing from the office of the almighty Mel. We’re poorer as a city because of it. We may have gotten more if we’d pushed the envelope.”

It’s a sentiment shared by a number of lefty councillors who’ve been taken aback by the votes of some of their colleagues.

“Several of the members, for whatever political largesse they get out of it, have become quite chummy with the mayor,” says councillor Michael Prue, who has managed to keep a modicum of independence.

Joe Mihevc has taken heat for, among other things, voting against a $450,000 bump for community grants. “There are times to take a principled stand and there are times to make political deals,” he says.

How is it, then, that other members of the left, most notably TTC chair Howard Moscoe, have been able to keep their independence and wield power at council?

“Municipal politics is far more fluid than politics at the provincial and federal levels,” says councillor Kyle Rae. “They’re far more issue-bound, and people (some members of council) often lose sight of that.”

Mel has proven himself a master at pitting the concerns of councillors from the old ‘burbs against those representing the core to get what he wants.

He’s also not above using threats and intimidation.

Says Rae, “There’s a shitload of members of council who have absolutely no profile and are dependent on the mayor to get elected.”

Several among them, including some progressives, rather than fight the good fight, have retreated almost entirely to constituency work and are rarely seen at City Hall.

Olivia Chow says it’s becoming increasingly difficult to whip up the public rage that’s needed to turn the tide on issues.

There’s hardly any time for community development now, Chow says, and it’s bound to get worse when councillors have larger wards to take care of in the next term.

“Ultimately, you’re going to see the lobbyists and staff taking more control,” she says.

More money

But what about those promises Mel was making at his fundraiser about more money for the homeless, the environment and public transit next term?

Layton says the signals coming out of the mayor’s office are pointing squarely in the other direction.

“The idea that Mel Lastman would consider having someone like (Canadian Alliance bigwig) Tom Long as his campaign co-chair, that for me signals where we’re headed. There’s a frustration out there. The polarization that’s going on in the city is going to erupt on the floor of council a hell of a lot more than it did last term.”

Of course, only time will tell.

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