Saturday, October 30, 2010

Toronto: A Nascent Cycle

It's fine call Rob Ford the 64th Mayor of Toronto - it's true, and it shows just how old a city Toronto is, but it's rather more illustrative to call him the third mayor. The third mayor of the city as we know it today, that is. The third mayor, winner of the fifth election, of the city that was amalgamated in 1998 from a number of smaller municipalities. Given how much talk is being made at the moment about 'Old Toronto' vs. the 'inner suburbs', this seems like a valuable thing to bear in mind.

After all, how can you argue with this map, from the Toronto Star?

I think it's correct to frame this election as downtown vs. suburbs. Additionally, it was also about the role of government, about the power of populism, and to a limited extent about the traditional divisions of left, centre and right. It was about downtown vs. the suburbs, so people are right to talk in those terms. People are wrong, though, in pretending that there's anything new about that. It's kind of the way this city works, actually. And though five campaigns is obviously not enough to detect trends, there does seem to be a common thread among them.

The first post-amalgamation election was explicitly downtown vs. suburbs, pitting the incumbent mayor of (Old) Toronto, Barbara Hall, against the decades-long incumbent mayor of North York, Mel Lastman. While one needn't assume that everyone would root for the home team, and while it says nothing about how Etobicoke, York, East York or Scarborough would vote, the results seem oddly familiar:

Barbara Hall's narrow defeat is actually, interestingly, the only time so far an incumbent mayor has been defeated in post-amalgamation Toronto, and even at that it's a half-exception, since she was beaten by an incumbent too. The map above is not quite downtown vs. suburbs so much as north vs. south, but it's definitely a polar split, with the left-leaning candidate winning the vote in the most heavily concentrated urban core and the right-leaning candidate winning in the (slightly) sparser outlying areas.

It's not accurate, however, to say merely 'that's the dynamic in Toronto'. After all, four years later Lastman was re-elected with such a landslide that they might as well have put a crown on his head. Lastman served two terms as mayor of what was once called Metro Toronto, and left on a high note. He didn't seek re-election in 2003, an election which came down to David Miller on the left and John Tory on the right. The resultant map of the 2003 election?

This is admittedly not quite a map of 'old Toronto vs. the suburbs': three Scarborough wards went Miller, for example, and he won fully three wards bordering Steeles. But there is still a duality here, one remarkably similar to 1997... or similar to last week too. And it bears mentioning: not just 'inner' vs. 'outer' but also 'left' vs. 'right', with downtown on the left and the suburbs more likely to trend right.

Again though... just 2003. The next election in 2006 was much more decisively a victory for Miller, whose 57% of the vote was no Lastman-style coronation but was even throughout the city: he won 42 of 44 wards. And did not seek re-election this time around.

What do we see? Well, a pendulum, one that swings every eight years, not four. We see that Toronto likes its incumbents regardless of traditional left/right or urban/suburban divides, but when not faced with an incumbent, resort to traditional, predictable trends. With a (official) lack of partisan branding, Toronto's municipal elections inevitably feature a wide variety of candidates but tend to coalesce around two major candidates, who are then distinguished as broadly 'left' and 'right'. Some of the parts of Toronto that just handed Ford a victory are among the most faithful Liberal seats both federally and provincially, so I would question the importance of the left/right divide, as we traditionally view it, in the current election. I think there's a lot to consider, in fact, in the current election, but if history tells us anything, the divides we feel in our city now will dissipate over the next four years. And if there really is a cycle in Toronto municipal politics, then four years from now cries of "Four More Years" will ring from Ford supporters all the way from Rexdale to Harbourfront. Stranger things have happened. Er... I think.

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