Sunday, October 01, 2006

Don't worry about your enemies, worry about your friends

To paraphrase a comment attributed to Warren Harding: politicians generally have the power to deal with their enemies; the job gets tricky when they have to worry about their friends. Mayor David Miller has to worry about his friends in Community AIR, the lobby group which agitates for the closure of Toronto City Centre Airport, a small short-range airport on Lake Ontario near Toronto's downtown. Community AIR backed Mayor Miller vigorously in the last election, and he promptly gave them what they wanted in return: a request from Toronto City Council to the Canadian government that they cancel a lift bridge to the airport. The opponents of Toronto City Centre Airport hoped that would lead to the closure of the airport, but it did not. Instead, an airline entrepreneur made plans to operate a short-haul airline from Toronto City Centre using advanced, Canadian-made turbo-prop aircraft. Community AIR goes into this election frustrated, with a victory under their belt that did not get them what they wanted. They have begun asking Mayor Miller for things he can't possibly deliver. And they have begun asking it in public.

Community AIR, and their allies, subscribe to three linked myths. The first, the myth that their anti-airport group has political strength, they believe because the mayor of Toronto regularly supports their position in his rhetoric. However, if the airport issue could really tip election results city-wide, the mayor would have a clutch of council resolutions in his pocket, demanding that the federal government ground Porter Air (the airline about to open service at Toronto City Centre Airport), that the government close the airport entirely to commercial traffic, or even that Transport Canada (which owns the airport, and operates it through the Toronto Port Authority) close it altogether. Mayor Miller has never done so, and he certainly has the intelligence to understand that a city council resolution makes a stronger statement about the position of the city than press interviews by the mayor alone. If he hasn't put a single resolution before council since the first announcement of the plans for Porter Airlines, a period of over nine months, it implies that he could not get such a resolution passed.

The myth of political strength rests on a myth of moral strength. Community AIR stakes out claims heavy on rhetoric about a “clean green waterfront”, but in the end their position amounts to a demand that one privileged neighbourhood (where most of the members of Community AIR live) get all it wants, indeed all it could possibly ask, and that others (people who live near Toronto's main airport, Pearson International) pay the environmental costs.

That leads to the third myth, the myth that Community AIR has a strong factual case. They have made a number of claims that make their position look good, but which have no validity. Their analysis ranges from deeply flawed (such as their claims about the suitability of the runways and taxiways at the airport) to outright fiction (such as their claim that commercial flights will go up the Don River Valley, right through the city, when in fact flights from Toronto City Centre Airport turn south, over Lake Ontario.

Phantom strengths, like phantom wealth, have the baneful effect of inducing people to overspend. In political terms, this usually means they refuse compromises and demand exactly what they want, nothing less. A single quote characterizes the position of Community AIR: “We'll only be happy when we see bulldozers ripping up the runway.” A position such as that doesn't leave a lot of room for negotiation and compromise, the soul of politics. It leaves Mayor Miller with neither the political strength to make demands, or the flexibility to make deals.

Going into the fall municipal election, after a term characterized by disappointed expectations, David Miller needs to have the voters see him as effective. That won't happen if supporters who badly overestimate the strength of their position make impossible demands of him.

1 comment:

James said...

There is some interesting information on the Toronto municipal elections page.