Saturday, February 4, 2012

Blinded by Loyalty

Modern politics is dominated by the idea of loyalty. Honestly that's a shame, because it really has no place there. Not in the way it most commonly manifests, at least. It's understandable why it happens - on the whole, people respond to the concept of personal loyalty, putting your trust in a specific leader and following along with what that leader says and does for the simple fact that they're the leader. It's only in the last few hundred years that most of the world has begun moving toward governments where loyalty is meant to be toward the institution itself, rather than any particular leader.

The bumps in the road, the tendencies of politicians to gather in loyalist cliques and do things not because they're necessarily the best thing to do but because that's what the leader wants to do, represent one of the great failings of politics in my mind. For my part, there's no better place to see those failings in action today than the city of Toronto, where hizzoner da mayor Rob Ford barely took more than a year to really start showing his true colors.

For non-Torontonians, this is the situation: the previous mayor, David Miller, started work on a project called Transit City, which was to see the construction of half a dozen light rail lines across Toronto's underserved arteries by 2018. Initial work had already begun on part of the system when Rob Ford galumphed into office in December 2010, and his first act - his very first act - was to declare Transit City dead. At the time there wasn't much noise in city council, as Ford had been carried into power on a wave of popular support and the idea of "Ford Nation" was still a powerful one.

In 2012, it's become evident that that nation is a hollow one. Pushbacks have begun, from legal opinions finding that Ford never had the authority to unilaterally cancel Transit City in the first place - a cancellation that, incidentally, put the City of Toronto on the hook for $65 million in penalties - to agitation to restart Transit City in its entirety. The controversy now is centered around the planned Eglinton Crosstown light rail line; originally this was supposed to be tunneled in its built-up, central section while its eastern and western ends ran on the surface, in less dense surroundings and, to the west, in the right-of-way originally intended for the Richview Expressway. Thanks to Ford's obsessive animus against "streetcars," he's decreed that it be moved entirely underground. At an estimated cost of $8.2 billion, that makes it Canada's most expensive infrastructure project.

May I remind you that this was a man who campaigned on the notion of "respect for taxpayers."

The latest development was Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz proposing a compromise solution, where the eastern portion of the line would be returned to the surface and thus saving as much as $2 billion. For her trouble, she's now effectively lost control of the Commission to Ford loyalists, who voted against any further study of above-ground options.

This is the sort of place where loyalty to a person rather than a notion or an institution gets you. Is throwing eight billion dollars into a pit really in the best interests of Toronto? Absolutely not! That doesn't matter to the political wolves, though - that's what Rob Ford wants, and Rob Ford's intransigence when it comes to Council is going to mean very loud politics in Toronto right up until the end of 2014.

I'm reminded of a quote by Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada: "Anybody may support me when I am right. What I want is someone that will support me when I am wrong." For me, this sums up all the problems of politics. Too many politicians just see it as a game, or as a means to accumulating power, and forget about all the people who have to live with their decisions. Loyalty and support should be earned by positive action and good deeds, not just because someone happened to secure a plurality of the vote. A politician who's wrong doesn't deserve support. That's how echo chambers are made.

Blinded by loyalty, it's easy to forget that.

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