This week, CBC announced that it was cancelling it’s planned televised election debate, which was to have featured incumbent John Tory one-on-one versus challenger Jennifer Keesmaat.
Tory has refused to participate in any debates that pit him one-on-one with Keesmaat. CBC, citing “editorial independence,” has refused to cater to his preference. The result is that the public is deprived of a chance to hear a real debate about the issues from the leading candidates just two weeks before the election. Whether it featured two candidates, or four, or more, the televised discussion close to election day may have been the biggest opportunity for many voters to learn about the race. It appears they will not get that discussion. As the forbidding front-runner, Tory wins by default.
And at this late date, that seems to be a bit of a theme in this election. Thanks to newly elected headstrong Premier Doug Ford, the whole civic election has been turned on its head, with the result that much of a campaign that usually unfolds over almost half a year is being compressed into a period of weeks. And that very act of disruption means that a lot will be fascinating to watch, both on election day and afterwards: the composition of council is a much bigger question mark than usual; how those councillors effectively deal with wards twice as big as before will be one of the stories of the next term; how much the premier lets the mayor and new council govern without sticking his constitutional veto-power into their business is the elephant lumbering around the room overshadowing the whole business.
But the mayoral race has, so far, failed to turn into a particularly compelling contest. None of the candidates seems to have captured the city’s imagination. If that remains the case, Tory wins by default.
Tory has, for his part, largely run as expected, a classic front-runner’s campaign. His pitch, in a city where satisfaction levels with his leadership in polls have showed solid majorities, is “more of the same.” Most of his promises on the campaign trail involve continuing to do work he has already begun, with a few tweaks: he’d expand the open door program he already implemented to create more affordable housing; ramp up his job fairs program to help create more employment; continue the work of streamlining online access to city services; raise property taxes only by the rate of inflation; keep on keeping on with his transit and traffic plans.
If most people are more or less content with the way things have been going, this kind of campaign makes sense. I joked recently about Tory claiming goals should be “adequate but realistic” in a debate, but that is his political promise summed up — and if people are happy enough with it, why not?
Answering that question compellingly — why not more of the same? — is the first job that has faced Keesmaat and the others hoping to challenge him. And I’m not sure she has done it in a way that has resonated with most people.
I think a lot of her policy proposals are more promising than Tory’s — her more ambitious affordable housing construction plans (and the rent-to-own proposal she added among those on Thursday); her revisiting of the eastern Gardiner Expressway rebuilding; her network tweaks and changes of emphasis in transit plans. Her approach to dealing with the premier appeals to me more than Tory’s does (Keesmaat promises to stand up and fight for the city while Tory says he’ll work productively with Ford), though if the premier decides to throw his weight around I’m not certain how effective either approach will turn out to be — Keesmaat risks provoking the beast, while Tory risks taking dictation from Queen’s Park. Her pledge to strengthen community councils and implement participatory budgeting seems like the most promising lemonade-from-lemons recipe for dealing with the cut to the size of council, but it also isn’t clear Ford will let any effective proposal to that end stand.
The other candidates who’ve appeared in debates — especially Saron Gebresellassi with her promise to make public transit free — have also shown well and contributed some interesting ideas.
But none of the challengers has so far seemed to catch fire, and I think it’s because none have so far come up with a compelling, coherent enough story to make people get excited about change. I get as sick as anyone of political types yammering on about “controlling the narrative” and the logical twister game they get into attempting to do so. But it’s true in a lot of respects that campaigns are about telling a story — a mayoral platform has to add up to a coherent story about where the city is at, how it can triumph in the conflicts it faces, and why the candidate is the right hero to accomplish that victory. In recent city elections, the winners have been those who did this best: David Miller’s sweeping broom to clean up and build a “magnificent city;” Rob Ford’s anti-elite Gravy Train picture book; John Tory’s steady manager to help a divided city recover after a turbulent and scandalous time.
In this election, I haven’t heard or seen much that adds up to a coherent story. At least, not a particularly inspiring one. Tory’s story is “things are good, a few tweaks and a steady hand are all that’s needed.” It’s the obvious one for him — adequate, you could say — but it doesn’t exactly set the heart soaring.
The challengers need a story that both shows why the status quo isn’t adequate, and paints a picture of how making a change is going to take us to a better place. It’s easier for me to say that than for a candidate to do that, especially in a shortened and turbulent campaign. But that’s the challenge: tell us a story.
There’s roughly two weeks left. The campaign story isn’t over yet. But we’re into the home stretch now — if they want to shake things up, the challengers need to start making one hell of a closing argument.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire