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Who is Tory, why is Chow losing to him, and what can we do?

By: 
Alex Hunsberger

September 18, 2014

When Olivia Chow entered the Toronto mayoral race she was the frontrunner, carrying the hope of an alternative to Rob Ford’s austerity agenda. But since then she has progressively fallen in the polls, now lagging far behind John Tory and battling for second place with Doug Ford, who has taken his ailing brother Rob's place in the race. What happened?
 
Rob Ford was elected four years ago following a populist campaign that channeled visceral anger about the consequences of austerity in a right-wing direction, promising to cut property taxes by eliminating waste at City Hall—or "gravy," as he called it. Soon people discovered that the “gravy” he wanted to cut was public jobs and services. A series of deputations, demonstrations and a library worker’s strike during Ford’s first year undermined his support and caused rivals to emerge, though in the past year protests have waned while the media have focused on his personal troubles.
 
Tory has tried to sell himself as a moderate consensus candidate who will avoid the extremes of both the left and the right while successfully defeating the Fords at the ballot box. We cannot be fooled by Tory’s surface rhetoric, however. On the important questions he has repeatedly showed his true blue colours time and again. Make no mistake about it—John is a Tory.
 
Tory's right-wing past
John Tory was born into the heart of the old Protestant Upper Canadian elite. His grandfather John S.D. Tory founded the family law firm Torys LLP in 1941. The firm, in which members of the family remain involved, is one of Bay St.’s “seven sisters,” a collection of leading business firms in downtown Toronto that handle much of the legal work of the finance, insurance, and real estate companies located in the area. 
 
As is to be expected from a leading business family, the Torys have long had strong connections with other key elite players in Toronto. The late John A. Tory, father of the current mayoral candidate John H. Tory, had particularly close personal ties to both the Thomson family (controlling shareholder of international media conglomerate Thomson Reuters and the richest family in Canada) and the Rogers, another leading media family who were behind the cable empire.
 
John H Tory, then, had all the resources and connections he needed to set himself up for a life of repeatedly flipping through the revolving door between business and political leadership. Trained as a lawyer, he spent time as a senior operative in the Ontario Progressive-Conservative (PC) Party before heading back for a stint in private practice with the family law firm. Moving to the federal level, he held a series of key leadership positions in Brian Mulroney’s hard-right PC government, culminating with a position as campaign manager for the PCs during the 1993 federal election. The campaign was an unmitigated disaster, with the PCs dropping from 156 seats to two, one of the worst defeats of any governing party in the liberal democratic world in the 20th century. The nail in the coffin was a PC ad, approved by Tory, that appeared to make fun of Liberal leader Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis.
 
Tory’s confidence was not shattered by the 1993 defeat, however, nor were his job prospects.  He shuffled back to the private sector for a time, taking on a lucrative position as CEO of Rogers Media, later moving to head the monopolistic Rogers Cable. His involvement in politics remained, though, and he played a key role in helping elect conservative Mel Lastman as the first mayor of the newly-created single-tier City of Toronto, colloquially known as the “mega-city.” A populist furniture store owner with strong parallels to Rob Ford, Lastman ran as an anti-tax candidate, and managed to get himself into hot water on a regular basis as a result of his questionable judgement.
 
In 2003, with Lastman stepping out of the fray, Tory decided for the first time in his life to stand for political office himself. He was competing with former mayor of pre-amalgamation Toronto Barbara Hall—the perceived front runner and effective Liberal candidate—as well as councillor David Miller, an NDPer whose polling numbers were not particularly strong initially. As the campaign developed, Hall’s support plummeted, and Miller became the main progressive alternative to the right-wing Tory. Tory tried to maintain Lastman’s anti-tax line while appealing to traditional conservative law-and-order values with a plan to fine panhandlers in the downtown core. Tory lost to Miller, though by a fairly narrow margin.
 
Tory then moved to the provincial level, winning the leadership of the Ontario PC Party that was attempting to rebuild after being booted from office in 2003 by the Liberals. Tory was perceived as the candidate of the more centrist wing of the party, though this must be qualified by stressing that runner-up Jim Flaherty was very far to the right.
 
As PC leader, Tory presented a fiscally conservative platform that was to the right of the Liberals, if not dramatically so. A controversial promise by the PCs to extend public funding to faith-based private schools overshadowed all other issues on the campaign trail, however, backfiring on the party and allowing the McGuinty Liberals to secure an increased majority. Tory lost his own seat to Liberal Kathleen Wynne, and then managed to lose a subsequent by-election as well, resulting in his resignation as PC leader.
 
A New Tory?
In recent years, Tory has been most closely associated with his advocacy for public transit expansion as head of Toronto CivicAction Alliance from 2010 until earlier this year. Some mistake this as a sharp move to the left by Tory, but in fact this is reflective of a shift of opinion in the business community in favour of transit expansion.
 
Tory would like to sweep under the rug that he supported both Rob and Doug Ford during the last municipal election. While not endorsing either on the public record, contribution data from the City of Toronto reveal that Tory donated $2000 to Rob's campaign and $300 to Doug's. Though the extent of Rob Ford's personal problmes was not clear at the time, his racism, sexism, homophobia, and extremely regressive views on nearly all matters were well known.
 
On the campaign trail, while claiming to be a moderate, Tory continually returns to traditional conservative themes, playing up his anti-tax, pro-development credentials, while constantly insinuating Chow is a financially irresponsible NDPer. Tory has been relatively silent on questions of social and economic inequality, preferring to focus on how he can lower property taxes and privatize public services.
 
The business and political establishment is certainly impressed, offering Tory its financial and infrastructural backing. With many leading Conservatives tired of the antics of the Fords, they are joining with key Liberals to unite behind Tory as the candidate who can continue Rob Ford’s policies but with a more controlled and polished image. For instance, Tory has been endorsed by Thornhill Conservative MP and former Harper environment minister Peter Kent, while Ontario Liberal Minister of Economic Development Brad Duguid appeared to indicate that the provincial cabinet is closely aligned with Tory’s camp. The unity of Conservatives and Liberals against social democrat Chow should not come as a surprise—it is a truism that where social democrats are electorally competitive the pro-business forces of the centre and right tend to unite in a “free market” coalition.
 
If we really understand where John Tory stands—that is, as a conservative who differs from the Ford brothers only cosmetically—what should those who have a more progressive vision for Toronto do?
 
Chow following Horwath’s path to defeat
Chow began with a lead based on the hope she would offer an alternative to Ford and his austerity agenda, with the support of the city’s trade union and activist communities. Her army of campaign volunteers is made up of people of all ages who are looking for a more equitable and environmentally sustainable city whose leadership reflects the diversity and concerns of the population.
 
As an article on socialist.ca argued in March, “There’s a clear desire for an alternative to Ford’s agenda, expressed through rallies, deputations and strikes. More recently there have also been other resistance movements in the city—from Idle No More and sanctuary city, to the $14/hr minimum wage and opposition to Line 9. All this provides a clear left-wing platform of economic, social and climate justice—which a left-wing candidate could use to amplify the movements outside City Hall.
 But despite Olivia Chow’s record and link with movements, it’s not clear her campaign will reflect them. Instead it is emphasizing her ‘track record of promoting small businesses’ and that she ‘balanced budgets with (right-wing) Mayor Mel Lastman.'"
 
Chow's embrace of the right's rhetoric has blurred what should be a clear contrast between her and Tory, and allowed Tory to portray himself as the main alternative to the Fords, given his lead in the polls. Chow has followed the misguided strategic path set by the Ontario NDP in the recent provincial election in which the party moved sharply to the centre and was decimated in the City of Toronto as traditional NDP volunteers and voters stayed home out of disappointment at the lack of social justice focus. Anger with the NDP's rightward shfit also led some on the left to vote Liberal out of frustration, much as some of now considering voting for Tory.
 
If Chow does not change course soon, it seems unlikely she will be able to regain her lead in the polls. If she loses it will not be because voters have shifted right and prefer a repeat of Ford's policies, but because there was no left alternative on offer. Chow must clearly show voters how she differs from Tory—by raising real alternatives—lest they buy his logic of voting for him to stop (Doug) Ford.
 
Needed: a left alternative, now and after the election
The notion that Chow could not win by running to the left is contradicted by a number of recent elections across Canada and the US. In Seattle, avowed socialist Kshama Sawant won a city-wide council election by focusing on the fight for a $15 minimum wage that has since been successful. Even business-based parties and candidates are correctly reading the popular mood—from Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne who claimed to offer a left alternative to Tim Hudak's hard-right PCs, to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio who ended more than a decade of Republican rule on a platform focused on tackling inequality.
 
The left should put pressure on Chow and left-leaning council candidates to embrace an agenda focusing on social justice, good jobs and improved public services that can stand in contrast to Tory’s prescription for more of the same with a new face. Chow has a golden opportunity to paint Doug Ford and John Tory as tweedledee and tweeledum—two millionaire conservatives who offer nothing but more austerity and privatization. Advocating for green jobs and against Line 9, against privatization and for better, more affordable, democratic public transit, more affordable housing and tenant protections, and improved community facilities are all demands that could form the basis for a more equitable and sustainable vision for the city. It's these movements outside City Hall that best fought against Ford, and that will need to continue fighting regardless of who wins the election.

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