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Toronto Politics

Where did the ‘Liberals’ on Toronto Council go?

Toronto Councillor Shelley Carroll

Back in July, 2011, a remarkable thing happened. Councillor Shelley Carroll, a progressive and vocal critic of Mayor Rob Ford, sent a letter to her riding association in Ward 33 (Don Valley East) which she has represented since 2003. Beyond her stated opinion that the City’s (conservative) leadership was not working in the best interests of Torontonians, Carroll took the unanticipated step of calling out Councillors for their duplicity.

“Every day,” she wrote, “I see evidence of City Councillors who allow their constituents to believe they have a Liberal for a City Hall representative,” when “the opposite is true.”

This was not your typical rabble-rousing. While Carroll declined to name names, it is easy to identify the Councillors Carroll intended to discomfort. Her accusation is considerable, and not without merit: that Councillors across the city – most in Scarborough and Etobicoke – have used past Liberal Party credentials and affiliations to present themselves as progressive candidates to voters, only to shift right once the prevailing wind in City Hall was decidedly conservative.

After all, Councillors arrive at City Hall with agendas, both of personal passion and constituent interests. And when it became clear in the early days of the Ford mayoralty that Councillors must vote with the Mayor to have their voices heard, the idea that some would be willing to modify their ideological allegiances does not seem far-fetched.

The Toronto Star noted back in July that you do not have to look far at City Hall to see examples of Liberal-affiliated Councillors with strong ties to Rob Ford. They identified four prominent Councillors with past Liberal ties on Ford’s Executive Committee, no less, including,

Michelle Berardinetti, a Liberal married to Liberal MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti; Norm Kelly, a former federal Liberal MP; Michael Thompson, who has past Liberal ties; and Peter Milczyn, a former Etobicoke-Lakeshore Liberal riding association president.

The reaction from those singled out by Carroll was understandably defensive. Both Milczyn and Berardinetti remarked that Carroll’s “hardcore left” voting record could hardly be considered Liberal despite Carroll’s close connection to the party.

“She seems more like an NDPer to me,” remarked Milczyn.

But even a cursory examination of their voting records – courtesy of well-respected council-watcher Matt Elliott – would show Carroll considerably more likely to vote with Mayor Ford than Councillor Berardinetti would be to vote against him. After all, she’s in the Executive, and Ford is not known for including dissidents in his inner circle.

Toronto Council Voting Scorecard - Courtesy of Matt Elliott

Carroll has put ideology aside in voting with Ford on such key issues as eliminating the vehicle registration tax, contracting out garbage services west of Yonge Street, and even freezing council salaries – cornerstones of Ford’s “Respect for Taxpayers” mantra. The mayor has received Carroll’s support in 26.32% of votes when she made her views known in July.

Berardinetti, by contrast, has made political hay from voting with the mayor. In 85% of those same council votes, Berardinetti has propped up Ford Nation, even when it meant voting against the addition of two provincially-funded public health nurses to City medical services, which should easily have been above political brinksmanship.

When she has voted against the mayor, it has been on smaller issues such as rescinding the previous ban on the sale of bottled water, or switching to a more environmentally dangerous method for treating waste water at the Ashbridges Bay treatment plant. Important issues, to be sure, but not cornerstones of the Ford plan for Toronto.

This is not to pick on Michelle Berardinetti specifically. There are many ‘Liberals’ on Council that seem to have disappeared once elected, all of them curious in their own right. Norm Kelly was elected as a Liberal MP to the House of Commons in Ottawa in 1980 under Pierre Trudeau; Milczyn was the former president of the Etobicoke-Lakeshore Liberal riding association in the early 1990s, allegedly splitting with the party over a candidate selected to run in the 1993 election; Thompson, interestingly enough, was assistant to none other than Lorenzo Berardinetti – Michelle’s husband – when he sat on Toronto’s City Council (leaving in 2003 to join McGuinty at Queen’s Park), and Thompson successfully ran to replace him.

Yet Berardinetti is representative of the confusion many have when they wonder where the ‘Liberals’ on Council have gone. A “Liberal married to [a] Liberal MPP,” as the Star points out, she has years of political experience working for…provincial Liberals, among others: specifically, prominent Dalton McGuinty cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello (who controlled six different key ministries from Education to Economic Development) in addition to current Speaker of the House, Dave Levac.

So why have these once active and engaged Liberals forsaken their roots? Is it the allure of power? Most likely. No politician likes being in opposition, stonewalled time and again on their initiatives, especially when some Council seats are hotly contested. And the Ford message is comfortably sold to the public because it is easily digestible and understood, couched as it is in the idea that waste is rampant, taxpayers are being gouged, and efficiencies must be found to stop the bleeding. Cutting taxes while maintaining services. Impossible, yes, but who wouldn’t like that arguing for that? And what centrist Councillor couldn’t see the allure of shifting right in order to share power?

And if this is the case, Berardinetti is not alone, nor is she the worst culprit. Milcyzn has voted with Ford 95% of the time, while Michael Thompson and Norm Kelly have voted with the mayor on an incredible 100% of votes in Council. This is unbelievable when you consider the deep ties these four have had with the Liberal Party. And while the fortunes of the federal Liberals have been on the decline lately, can their liberal political outlooks have altered so significantly as support for the party has faltered?

Whither the ‘Liberals’ on Toronto Council? Ford Nation is showing signs of weakness, meaning Torontonians need true liberals on Council now more than ever.

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


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