Larry O’Brien is going to straighten out the City of Ottawa. Or that’s what he told a crowd of cheering admirers when the shocking municipal election results came through, and it was clear that he had ridden a wave of suburban tax rage from his company in the high tech sector all the way to the top job at city hall.
I know I’m not the only one who was left scratching their head, wondering why voters had hired a person to be mayor who had never even been to a council meeting, and lacked basic knowledge about city functions. But as the detailed results from the Nov 13 election revealed, this really was a tale of two cities. While O’Brien won because of widespread support from suburbanites, Alex Munter ruled the city core, picking up the majority of votes in all five downtown wards.
Like many of you, I was a little complacent during the municipal election. Sure, I allowed a Munter sign to grace my front lawn, but I didn’t lift a hand to help his campaign. I figured that Munter would be practically acclaimed mayor, and that there would be lots of people to help carry him to victory. And now we have four years to look forward to, while we follow the antics of a cost-cutting cowboy who seems to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to make unachievable promises, like his oft-repeated assurance that homeowners will see zero tax increases and no noticeable reduction in city services.
But who’s really to blame for O’Brien’s victory? Is it the complacent queers (like me) who didn’t roll up their sleeves and help Munter’s campaign? Is it the rightwing media that crowned O’Brien king and warned voters that Munter would impose leftwing spending habits on suburban homeowners? No. I would argue that a good share of the blame is weighted on the shoulders of former Prime Minister Paul Martin.
Okay, hear me out on this one. In 1995, as finance minister, Martin presided over the most massive cuts to social spending in a generation. His 1995 budget killed the Canada Assistance Plan, opening the door to devastating cuts to welfare. He also rolled funding for health, education and social assistance into one transfer payment that forced provincial governments to make difficult choices. Would it be health care, education or housing that would get the axe? Provincial governments were left unprepared and ill-equipped to take on the majority of the burden for providing much-needed social programs.
So they did what the federal government had done to them – downloading responsibilities onto underfunded cities, and forcing the amalgamation of smaller municipalities into mega-cities. Of course, in Ontario, premier Mike Harris was only too happy to do it.
How has this affected the City of Ottawa? Well, take a close look at the municipal election results. While city-dwellers voted for a candidate who was in touch with the downtown’s real need for better urban transit, a harm reduction approach to addiction problems and a crying need for social housing, suburban dwellers voted for the man who promised to leave their property tax bill alone.
As a new homeowner, I understand the frustration with high property taxes. My house was recently re-evaluated, and my tax bill doubled. But I also understand that property taxes are the city’s only source of revenue. The federal and provincial coffers have run dry, and it looks like Stephen Harper is as determined to starve the federal government of money as O’Brien is to shrink the city budget. Call it Mike Harris economics. Take an ideological stance against taxes. Starve your government of funding. Create a crisis and slash programs. Claim victory for the cause of “smaller governments.” Meanwhile, leave your most vulnerable citizens out in the cold.
Now, before the dykes in Barrhaven send me a flurry of protest letters, let me remind you that wherever queers live, we have a stake in what happens in the downtown core. We have a burgeoning gay village on Bank Street that could use a bit of a facelift, but remains a destination for thousands of us who access health services, join friends for a beer, volunteer for community organizations and buy supplies for weekend sex romps. The yearly Pride Parade and festival doesn’t just entertain us, it actually saves lives by showing our youth that it’s okay to be out and take up space in the world. The city’s arts and cultural events help promote diversity, while also providing tremendous economic benefits for local businesses. And even though many of us are relatively economically secure, there are lots of queer and trans people who are still struggling to find affordable housing and compassionate counselling.
Let’s also not forget that O’Brien wasn’t afraid to use veiled homophobia in his appeal to voters. My roommate picked up the phone during election week, to hear our now-Mayor warning him not to vote for Alex Munter’s “social engineering” at city hall. In his acceptance speech, O’Brien told a supposedly folksy story of a local farmer who encouraged him to “keep plowing those furrows straight.”
But the battle doesn’t end at the ballot box. It’s time to fight for the city we want, before it’s too late.