Friday, September 25, 2009

Politics: On David Miller

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Much has already been written, and more will be in the coming days, about the announcement earlier today that Toronto mayor David Miller will not seek a third term. Whatever the reasoning, Miller's decision was likely inevitable in light of the polls showing that he at best would have a tough road to re-election in the wake of the city worker's strike earlier this summer and a perception that many of his plans (transit and waste diversion, for example) that seem to actually be having their intended impact are not thought to be successful by the electorate. While I have been overwhelming impressed with Miller's long-term vision for the layout of the city and especially the "Transit City" plans, I have had my differences with some of Miller's policies (some of them expressed on this blog) and been mystified by some of his actions since I moved here. One thing I have never understood, though, is the sizable amount of people, only some of them bloggers and talk show callers, who claim to be convinced that Miller is the worst mayor in the western world.

Their claims are hyperbolic, but usually even those making exaggerated claims have some origin in real concerns, just of lesser magnitude. I have had trouble finding any grounding to many of the claims about Miller. The common claim is that "he has sent small business to the 905," meaning the area code of the communities around Toronto, with taxes. If that's true, it must be new businesses. In the places I visit within the city, most notably my neighbourhood, there have been a number of businesses closed since the recession began, but I have never seen a sign directing customers to a new location outside the city. The signs instead normally thank customers for however many years of patronage and announce retirement or bankruptcy.

There is a constant refrain that "people can't afford to live in Toronto anymore." I'm not going to argue about the high cost of living here or claim that Miller tried to reduce it, but neither did I encounter any people who left because they couldn't afford to live here. Of the people I know that have left Toronto since I moved here (a decent sample size), most were either older people moving to be closer to family that had been living outlying suburbs, or younger people moving closer to jobs--that might actually have been in Toronto, but farther from their old residence in Toronto than their new residence in a close-in "ring" suburb. Only a couple complained about Miller on the way out, and none of them seemed to have ever wanted to live in the city in the first place, no matter who was mayor.

The especially virulent say that "Miller has ruined the city and we'll spend decades undoing the damage." Where exactly is all this damage? I haven't lived here very long, but the only undesirable physical changes I have seen came from developers building structures that did not match the character of their communities, and that often came down to provincial-level decisions. The city isn't grossly in debt, so the damage cannot be financial. No high-profile sports teams or arts organizations have left the city that I have noticed, so it's not cultural. I have no visibility into the relations between the city government and the various sectors that it interacts with, but it seems to me that all changes with each new mayor, so there cannot be lasting damage there.

I honestly wonder what city the Miller critics are using as their standard. Would they really rather live in New York under Bloomberg? Chicago under Daley? Seattle under Nickels? Vancouver under Robertson? Even supposed conservative paradise Calgary is run by someone most closely associated with the Liberal party, Dave Bronconnier.

The bottom line to me is that it seems that most of the criticism of David Miller comes down to basic conservative rallying against taxes. (Indeed, a lot of the recent vitriol comes from the recent five cent tax on plastic bags--is it really that hard to bring one's own bags? Is a consumer from the 905 really going to be discouraged to come to Toronto to make a purchase because of a bag tax? It calls into question the validity of the overall argument--which has real substance behind it--to focus on a single tax that clearly will not have a major impact on health of the city's economy.) Considering that the mayor's race will be wide open, there may be a chance for a conservative to be elected--and my guess is that even if taxes are lowered and city services slashed, they still won't be happy--and those of us that appreciate the services certainly won't be, either.

I had a sinking feeling after Mayor Miller's announcement today that I might end up missing him more than I suspect I will today. I wonder how many people will reach the same conclusion, too late after the next election.

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