Saturday, December 10, 2016

What is with all the Ontario left ranting about road tolls and Toronto 'elites'?

While this trope has been around for a while, with the rather facile lines of debate that have arisen of late given Toronto Mayor John Tory's road toll plan, the bizarre and reactionary notion that Toronto is somehow a city comprised of latte drinking academics, intellectuals, and pompous elitists sneering at the rest of the province has reared its head again among lefties in Ontario.

Personally, as I have written about before, I think that John Tory's toll plan, whatever its alleged theoretical merits, is a distraction that will neither raise anywhere near the revenue required to help finance desperately needed transit expansion in the city nor will it raise any revenue of any kind for anything for many years anyway due to the length of time it will take to actually create the legal framework and infrastructure for the tolls.

Having said that, much of the recent left opposition to road tolls generally that is centered around a narrative that they are, in all cases and circumstances, regressive or an attack on 'poor' car drivers and on non-Torontonian Ontarians is simplistic and deeply problematic.

First, Torontonians generally and Toronto transit users specifically have been subsidizing the infrastructure and fuel usage of car drivers across the province for a very long time. The vast majority of people have no real understanding to what extent the government subsidizes the private use of cars. I wrote about it at some length in the piece "It is time for a war on the car". The notion that it is somehow 'regressive' to take steps to right this imbalance is bizarre.

Further, something has to be done to start to get people out of their cars. The present situation environmentally is simply not sustainable, no matter what people want to believe. There is no progressive, left, environmental or moral case for continuing this subsiding of car use as a society that makes any sense at all. It is literally helping to kill us all, and that can be said without hyperbole unless you are a climate change denier.

But it is surprising the number of people on the left who accept the grim reality of climate change but are unwilling to accept even the most minor consequences of what we need to do to stop it.

Trust me, as climate change gets worse and worse it will not be supposed elitists in Toronto alone who will pay the price.

Also, transit users -- who are statistically more likely to be from lower income groups and marginalized communities and who are doing the environmentally right thing -- are all made to pay 'tolls' and 'user fees' every time they ride in the form of transit fares. So unless you have a plan or are committed to eliminating those, opposing road tolls as a leftist strikes me as rather rank hypocrisy.

As a friend of mine put it on Facebook "Transit users pay $3.25 per ride or $140 a month for a Metropass - yet it's only when road tolls of $2 are proposed do we hear "TO THE BARRICADES!" from Ontario's social democrats." Indeed.

There is little that seems more 'elitist' than watching an endless stream of cars with a single person in them speed by long lines of people waiting to get on overcrowded transit with no understanding of just how much money the public spends to allow these car drivers to do this. As just one example, the many billions of dollars of public money that go into building and maintaining the very roads they drive on, all overwhelmingly used by private cars or commercial vehicles. Our cities are literally centered around them. To imply that asking them to pay a greater share for the privilege is somehow regressive is rather like rolling down your car window and screaming 'I'm all right Jack' on the way by that streetcar or bus stop.

Frankly, for the ONDP to join hands with Brown's Conservatives in some broad attack on tolls and to embrace a paint-by-numbers right wing anti-tax stance is typical of the party now and is grotesque.

While road tolls are certainly not even close to the only tool in these fights, and are not always the best one, sweeping reactionary generalizations about them are not helpful and feed broader anti-tax narratives.

Much of this anti-road toll, anti-tax pseudo-populism is served up with a generous side helping of hating Toronto. Especially all those 'elitists' who apparently live in it.

One would have thought that this inane rhetoric -- embraced by leading lights like Warren Thomas in the last provincial election -- that had such disastrous consequences for the ONDP in 2014 would have been put to bed already.

Apparently not.

It is, simply put, idiotic for leftists in Ontario to mimic the anti-Toronto rhetoric of the right. No left wing or progressive government, even a milquetoast NDP one, will ever be elected in Ontario without carrying Toronto, a fact that the Liberals seem to grasp far better than the ONDP and some others.

Despite all of the silliness, Toronto has a long tack record of supporting the left. In 1990 when the ONDP was actually elected under Rae they won 18 of their 74 seats in Toronto, which represented 24.3% of the total. They could not have achieved a majority without them.

In subsequent years Toronto (by which I mean the 'old' city and all its boroughs, but not Mississauga, Brampton, etc.) came through for the NDP again. When it lost in 1995, 5 of the 17 seats it won were in Toronto, or 29.4%. In 1999 3 of the 9 seats or 33%. In 2003 it was 3 of 7, an even higher percentage. In 2007 4 of 10 and in 2011 5 of 17 again.

A notable exception was the last election when Horwath's ONDP thumbed its nose at the issues that were of greatest concern to Torontonians and they responded by punishing the ONDP in the city where they won only 2 of their 21 seats.

The huge wave of red that swept across Toronto played a key role in giving Wynne her majority government. The lesson of this should have been clear to New Democrats and leftists more broadly.

But they have not learned it.

Toronto is home to many of the most progressive voters in the province. The left is not going to come to power here without them. Period. To think otherwise is not just fantasy but foolhardy.

Beyond that though, to talk of Toronto elites simply ignores what is actually going on in Toronto, which sees some of the most desperate poverty and marginalization in the province. This is a city of terrible income disparities in the midst of a severe housing crisis. For decades now transit infrastructure -- and infrastructure and social policy more broadly -- that would greatly help some of its most marginalized and racialized communities has been forsaken as successive governments prioritized other agendas that left these communities behind.

Toronto is the base as well to a wide array of activist groups and grassroots community organizations that fight day in and day out for social justice. That many both inside and outside the city do not acknowledge or respect this does not change this fact.

Given the reality of life and the struggle faced by so many of its residents the portrayal of Toronto as a bedrock of elitism is offensive.

As for sneering talk of 'academics' are we really going to embrace the anti-intellectualism of the right? The notion that academics and intellectuals all inhabit some 'ivory tower' and are out-of-touch with 'reality' is an essential component of the right wing ideological assault on evidence and fact based policy. Scratch the surface of most people out there ranting about academics and you find someone who denies climate change, thinks "cultural Marxism" is destroying society and who believes that "social justice warriors" are reverse racists and sexists that have made it so it is now men and white people who are really discriminated against and oppressed.

If this is the rhetorical road some folks on the left want to start down, count me out.

It is claptrap that emboldens and aids right wingers and it really has to stop along with the rubbish about feminist or anti-racist 'elites' and 'political correctness'.

The actual, honest-to-god reality is that Toronto is a huge, diverse city with millions of people in it many of whom are a paycheque away from destitution or, sadly, already there. It needs government investment in transit, housing, social programs and infrastructure desperately and, yes, this is important to the province as a whole just as it is that we ensure that these needs are met in every community and that rural roads and infrastructure are maintained as well.

We are, after all, living in a society.

If people see calls to invest government funds in ways that directly improve the lives of millions of people, calls to find ways to combat the deadly scourge of car driving and its environmental impact, and calls to use a variety of means at our disposal to pay for this 'elitist', then they really need to seriously reflect on why they do.

Because they are not.

See also: The myth of the leftist, feminist, anti-racist, elitist

See also: The myth of political correctness -- That last redoubt of the bigot, racist and misogynist

1 comment:

  1. What garbage. the NDP has not moved rightward with this stance, they propose that higher corporate taxes, closing loopholes and taxing stock options and the rich would open up the revenue for higher investments in transit infrastructure. The letter the ONDP posted was saying that they want to stop increases of both transit fares and to prevent tolls on driving. Of course car culture has to die, but you have to actually have viable alternatives first before you add a flat tax on driving. The NDP stand on this is the truly progressive stand, trying to argue away the legitimate concerns of people outside of the downtown ignores the very real struggles of many commuters. Id say this debate is not about elitism, so much as a lack of understanding and empathy for people other than yourself.