If all Philip Slayton had intended to do with his new book was give another gleeful spanking to Canada’s many wayward chief magistrates, it would have been too easy. It might also, if mayoral sins were itemized, have come in at a page-count topping Tolstoy.
Happily, Slayton has done more. He’s built a persuasive case, from the cross-Canada civic ruins, that saving municipal government “is the greatest political challenge now facing the country.”
Ideally, he says in Mayors Gone Bad, there would be constitutional reform to reflect Canada’s modern urban reality. But that’s unlikely.
So he recommends the devolution of as much political and taxing power as possible to cities through negotiated charters — a “devo-max” approach similar to that promised by the U.K. to a restless Scotland.
“What the cities desperately need is substantial new revenue tools, such as a city sales tax, a city income tax,” Slayton told the Star in a telephone interview from his home in Port Medway, N.S.
“That means we need politicians who are mature enough, and voters who are mature enough, to face the facts that the things we have to have, the things we desperately need, will be expensive and have to be paid for, and they will have to be paid for through new taxes.”
Slayton, a former Bay Street lawyer, said he got the idea for the book “just from reading the paper” and paying attention.
“It occurred to me one day, ‘God, there’s a lot of these mayors who seem to be messing up in a variety of ways.’ You always expect that there has to be one or two here and there. But there seemed to be a very large number of them. And I began to wonder, ‘Why is that?’
“It wasn’t just the Rob Ford thing that did it.”
He does, to be sure, review the dubious stewardships of Ford in Toronto, and Susan Fennell in Brampton, and Joe Fontana in London, and Larry O’Brien in Ottawa, and Peter Kelly in Halifax, and the roguish chief magistrates of Montreal and Laval, Que., and other such municipal luminaries.
It’s little wonder Canadian cities are so often led by the unsophisticated, inadequately educated and policy befuddled, he says. The job is simply impossible. And because of that, he says, Canadian mayors tend to be one of a few types.
There are the Glory Seekers (often wealthy) who don’t understand the position but like the accoutrements. There are the Office Seekers, perennial politicians who shift from level to level “always looking for a political resting place.”
There are Idealists, who hope that politics can transform society; and Pragmatists, usually urban policy wonks looking to achieve a few highly technical pet goals.
But whatever the label, Canadian mayors have neither the political power nor financial resources to do their job, he argues.
“To me, it’s absolutely evident that the cities are in an untenable position,” he told the Star. “They are being called upon to do a variety of things that they effectively cannot do.
“This is a fundamental problem in the country. It totally eclipses what we should do with the Senate or what should happen with Mike Duffy, the kinds of things that people focus on.”
Relieved sighs may well have been heaved all about the GTA after the 2014 municipal elections, he writes, at news that John Tory and Linda Jeffrey were the new mayors of Toronto and Brampton.
But no new era dawned, Slayton said. How could it? “The system remains the same.” In fact, it encourages a delusional political discourse.
For instance, he says, a handsome plurality of respondents said in a recent survey they thought that Tory was doing a good job as mayor.
“What does that mean?” Slayton asks. “He’s doing a good job in what way? Is he, in fact, addressing and dealing with the huge issues that have to be dealt with?
“I see no evidence of it. And it’s unfair to criticize him for that because how can he do that? He does not have the political tools and he doesn’t have the financial tools that he needs to do what has to be done. So he ends up talking about raccoon-proof garbage bins and rear-door boarding on the King St. streetcar.
“This is the mayor of a very large, wealthy metropolis who seems to end up dealing with issues that are essentially trivial, and there is no discussion of issues that are very far from trivial.”
And, for Slayton, Toronto’s single biggest question is this: “Who’s going to pay the billions of dollars required to have proper mass transit in Toronto? Who’s going to do that?”
A very good question.