Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Dim Bulbs, Big City

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, All Politics (Tuesday May 30, 2006 at 9:37 am)

The last Canadian federal election seemed to suggest that voters were turned on by the Conservative message. But in one area, Tory hopes of success remained a mere flicker.

They were shut out of the three largest cities in the country: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Given that, together, these three cities account for roughly sixty seats in the House of Commons (one-fifth of the total), writing them off makes an enormous difference to any bid for majority government.

But before getting carried away, bear in mind that the Conservatives didn’t do all that badly in these towns. While polling lower than they did overall, some things went very well for them.

Montreal is in a province where their leader’s mediocre French was to be a liability, and any victory a triumph. There, they finished strongly in several ridings: Hochelaga, Lac-Saint-Louis, Mount Royal, Pierrefonds-Dollard, Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, Westmount-Ville-Marie, Alfred-Pellan, Laval, Marc-Aurele-Fortin, and Saint-Leonard-Saint-Michel. In each, they came in either second or third place within striking distance at second.

In Vancouver (in a province where their fortunes dipped overall), they garnered strong levels of support outside of Vancouver East and Vancouver Kingsway, performed well (if not successfully) in a series of tight three-way races, and took narrow losses in North Vancouver and West Vancouver (whose full riding name is too ridiculous to be uttered in this place).

In Toronto (a province where the party had long-sought an electoral breakthrough), the party did lamentably badly in the core parts of the city, finishing third in most ridings (and a distant third at that), but came second in the more suburban fringe around the former cities of North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke.

Which means that there is some good news. The Tories made a significant gain in Montreal, given that they may not have been seen by voters there as a serious federalist option. The results from the next election may yet prove their strategy there to be effective. In Vancouver, they may have had been given a harder time than usual, amid a backlash against the possibility of their reaching majority government status.

But Toronto? There’s really no excuse. Even if some of the ridings there aren’t within Conservative reach, the results are a serious blotch on an otherwise bright campaign.

Displaying the same political brightness that netted them an overall victory, they’ve devised a plan. If only the brightness were also evidenced in the plan itself.

Tory John Baird, President of the Treasury Board, is promising big things in the works for Toronto. Fighting overdevelopment of the waterfront (all those condos blocking out the view of the Gardiner Expressway), announcing millions for urban development, and shaking hands with the mayor — he’s doing it all in the hopes of improving his party’s performance in Canada’s largest city.

But it’s not likely to work. At least not the way the Tories might need it to. The problem the Tories face isn’t that they’re not doing enough for Toronto. Whether the city gets short shrift from higher levels of government or not isn’t the point — it’s that giving money to Toronto doesn’t necessarily bring home the political bacon.

First, bear in mind that the next election isn’t going to be five years off. Winter will bring a new Liberal leader, and with it, the prospect of an election within a year (a year of winter, that is). That means that big announcements can be made, but big achievements won’t be reached; and Torontonians are familiar enough with that scheme to be a little bit blasé when it comes to federal spending.

Consider the Waterfront Revitalization Corporation:

Five years ago, the city, Queen’s Park and Ottawa jointly put up $1.5 billion and unveiled a grand vision to remake 46 kilometres of Toronto’s lakefront — from Marie Curtis Park at the mouth of Etobicoke Creek in the west to Rouge Beach Park in the east — into vibrant neighbourhoods full of homes, businesses, parks and transit, with improved public access to the lake.

At present, you’ll find that they’ve prepared a great number of plans, implemented none, and involved themselves in no actual redevelopment whatsoever. In fact, their promise for this year is to:

In 2005/06, TWRC will start delivering the kind of results the public expects from revitalization, results like major parks and recreational facilities, waterside destinations and new sustainable, downtown communities that are affordable for everyone.

And that’s five years after receiving $1.5 Billion. It’s enough to make even the most cash-crazy Torontonian at least a little bit skeptical of the value of infusions.

Exhibit two? Downsview Park. The Frosty Wonk recalls a time before Jar-Jar Binks, when staring at Britney Spears was bordering on creepy for an entirely different reason, even before anyone who didn’t love wasting their time gave the double quiver of a lamb’s cauda whether computers were particularly good at chess (actually, we’re probably still ahead on that one). In that time, called 1996, a park was begun, as a great federal endeavour. And lo, a decade later, it primarily boasts a film studio and a rentable indoor facility. It’s supposed, one day, to look like this. It presently looks like this. See the park? It’s that thing under the airstrip.

Point is, Torontonians have good reason to cheer and then get back to their usual business. They’ve heard it all before.

But the problem facing the Tories is more serious than the inability to buy votes with fancy, next-generation (delivery-wise, not vision-wise) projects.

Consider the fact that Toronto voters rated crime the number one issue in 2004, yet chose the Liberals as the best party to fight crime. It’s not like that hasn’t changed slightly in the more recent election, but the deep question it raises hasn’t: why would the party most likely to be identified with law-and-order issues poll second in dealing with them?

The answer isn’t “gun-registry”, but you’re getting warm. Citified folk, such as they is, like to consider themselves to be particularly citified. That is to say, chic and cosmopolitan. It’s in the nature of cities to have a broad selection of activities, new, exciting and diversely cultured (all the way back to Plato’s Republic, if you think about what that Thracian procession really signifies).

The gun registry isn’t the real problem, but it illustrates it nicely. Many of those opposed are from outside the large cities, where owning guns (and using them for various, completely legal reasons) is simply a part of life. Getting a yuppie, born and bred in the concrete jungle, to understand why having to register rifles is seen as a profitless bureaucratic exercise is asking him to experience someone else’s life — and one that, quite possibly, he disdains. It’s not that the urbanite really doesn’t like people from outside the cosmopolis, he just doesn’t know much about them, given his lack of exposure.

What he does know, he concocts mostly from things like the gun registry. When he reads about opposition from ruralists, his cosmopolitan mindset paradoxically doesn’t allow for their way of life — it simply brands them as the parochial, small-minded and backward yin to his own chic, multicultural and progressive yang. He lumps the issue together with their perceived intolerance or ignorance of other cultures, and other stereotypes of rural life, occasionally reinforced in his own mind by news of county fairs or rodeos (which are, curiously, more foolish to him than dragon-boat races or paying a cover charge to buy drinks and dance).

But surely there are other reasons, aren’t there? Don’t policy choices matter? Aren’t Torontonians fundamentally for a vision of federalism and social programs that the Conservatives oppose?

Some of them, yes. Some of them, no. But the crucial point is that there are probably enough whose concern is primarily with the image of the party as decision-makers to make a difference to Conservative fortunes. After all, the Liberals have MPs with remarkablyregressive” platforms, too (and in Toronto, to boot). Many of them voted against Martin’s same-sex legislation (which, you’ll recall, came to a vote largely by virtue of the BQ’s efforts).

It’s not that Toronto voters won’t vote for Conservative policies. Enough could for a few seats (and that would likely be enough for a majority government). What stops them is the thought that their five or ten MPs, however urbane, will be swamped in caucus by 20 to 40 MPs from Alberta, the BC interior, and even (gasp) rural Ontario who represent all the horrors of that backward, rural stereotype. Wrongly or rightly, therefore, it’s an image problem, and that can’t be solved by throwing money at people. It’s never worked for the nouveau-riche. . .

Fortunately for the Conservatives, there is a viable solution — and it’s one they’ve used before. It’s not as though they always had a bedrock of Western support. In 1942, the Tories held their leadership convention in Winnipeg as the first step in dislodging Liberal support from the West. Diefenbaker built on that to leave a legacy of support in the West.

The solution should be obvious. Familiarize Torontonians with all them countrified folk. Let them see the other party members for what they really are — thoughtful, honest Canadians who care about many of the same issues. Shine a little light on the best asset: people, not money.

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