The case against political attack ads

A recent op-ed column in the Star argued in favour of political attack ads ( Along with many other readers, I offer a response here( and below: I note the considerable irony in the author’s effort to defend negative, political attack ads on the basis that such ads contribute to meaningful public debate. As he himself notes, attack ads “focus on negativity, they put candidates in a bad light and they usually manipulate the primal emotions of hate and fear.” Highlighting the perceived shortcomings of one “positive” television commercial is not a serious argument for supporting the proliferation of negative ones. It is simply a distraction from the damaging democratic consequences of political attack ads, and the decline in civility of the public discourse in general: voter cynicism and citizen apathy. I agree with the author that political ads should be informative, but they need not do a long term disservice to our country. Christopher Holcroft, Founder, Civil Election, Toronto

Building a city, not tearing it down

I just spoke to City Counil's (Toronto's) Executive Committee. My deputation is below.

My father passed away last year. My mother – not very mobile and now alone for the first time in almost 50 years – was profoundly sad.

While our small family was there for her, my mother was at real risk of social isolation.

But her community – in the form of the Toronto Public Library – was there for her.

Through her local branch and its supportive staff my mother rediscovered her joy of reading. She explored new ideas, had new things to talk about and new ways to pass the time.

When my mother lost her sight a few months later, the Library was there for her again. Through talking books and the Toronto Bookmobile, my Mother’s spirits did not wane.

Fortunately, our public libraries are there for all of us.

Yet Toronto’s library system is just one of the many public investments that have had its value recently called into question.

More than a review of existing services to find efficiencies, this current process has all the feeling of a going out of business sale.

It would be prudent to take a fresh look at this review through eyes that see city programs and services as more than expenditures, community grants as more than free money, but rather as investments that should be managed.

Libraries, parks, theatres and arts festivals all help attract new residents, businesses and tourists to Toronto. They are part of the foundation seen by many as critical to building the new type of creative economy that cities such as ours will rely on for growth.

And if we are to truly respect taxpayers, than we have to recognize that in many cases, cutting one investment will create a new, more expensive cost.

- Council can reduce cultural and recreational opportunities for youth, and face higher justice and social service costs.
- It can shut down water conservation and tree preservation efforts, and deal with higher energy and infrastructure costs.
- It can eliminate disease prevention and nutrition programs, and face increased public health costs.

Many city investments are carried out by innovative, lean, non-profit agencies and individual Torontonians with an immense commitment to city building.

It is this civic spirit that we cannot abandon when we speak of fiscal responsibility. We must also consider our responsibilities as members of a community.

- We all have a responsibility to ensure our shared public space is secure: our air is clean to breathe, our water is fit to drink and our parks our safe to play in.
- We all have a responsibility to watch over our neighbours: by caring for the ill, helping the weak and protecting the vulnerable.
- And we all have a responsibility to contribute to the functioning of our city by paying our fair share of taxes.

In closing, I urge that consideration of all the advice you receive today be thoughtful; and the debate surrounding it, be civil.

Our city is too great and our legacy too proud to now choose ideology over reason and fear over hope.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Civil Politics

I wrote the op-ed below for the Toronto Star on creating a more civil politics, or at least a more civil dialogue. It is an issue I will be returning to. Stay tuned.

Boorishness not just a problem in Ottawa
Toronto Star - Published On Thu, Oct. 7, 2010
Christopher Holcroft

Canada is a civilized country with increasingly uncivil politics.

A recent opinion poll indicates a majority of Canadians are fed up with the uncivilized antics occurring with alarming regularity during Question Period on Parliament Hill. But what goes on in Question Period is the norm, not the exception, of our political debate, and boorish behaviour is not limited to our elected officials.

From political party talking points to televised panel discussions to online public comment sections of newspapers, the discourse is too often marred by aggressive partisanship, offensive personal attacks and the advancement of narrow viewpoints. At least the House of Commons has a referee of sorts in the Speaker.

One of the basic tenets of a civil society is the opportunity for its members to respectfully share opinions and debate the issues of the day. A commitment to civil debate is essential to the peaceful functioning of any country, and has proven so for Canada.

It is often said that ours is a country born of evolution, not revolution. It is difficult to imagine today how we talked ourselves through Confederation, conscription, a new flag and two Quebec sovereignty referendums when we cannot get through a debate on gun registration without name-calling, intimidation and divisive language.

But such is the current political climate — one in which too many politicians and their advocates have learned to be successful not by building but destroying, not through persuasion but by division.

Canadians who still believe in civility in the public realm are simply tuning out. They vote less. They do not join political parties. They refrain from participating in important public policy deliberations — further ceding the political discourse to those least interested in a debate, or a politics, that is civil.

We suffer for this declining standard of public debate in ways that are easy to see but hard to measure: less discussion — and progressive action — on major policy issues; fewer serious candidates for public office; declining citizen participation in politics, and the weakening of ties that promote social cohesion.

We have seen the effects of polarizing politics on our American neighbours — the misinformation, vitriol and public division — and their ability to render their government almost impotent. We cannot let that happen here.

There are many challenges our own country will grapple with in the coming years, from addressing climate change to managing changing demographics. If we cannot responsibly talk about these challenges they will go unresolved.

The recent discussion on how to “fix” Question Period is well worth having. MP Michael Chong should be commended for his proposals. But measures to restore a degree of civility to our public discourse must extend beyond the halls of Parliament and engage all of us. Together, we can nurture a culture of civil debate; one that promotes reason, empathy and openness and rejects fear, intolerance and secrecy. Some initiatives worth pursuing include:

• Advocating for improved access to government information and restrictions on negative, personal attack style campaign advertising.

• Eliminating the anonymity of online commentary on the websites of major news outlets.

• Encouraging civil debate clubs and model parliaments in schools.

• Creating more opportunities for moderated public debates on major policy issues.

Canada is a civilized country. Our history leans far more toward peace and dialogue than anger and violence. Our inclusiveness bodes well for a rebooting of a more civil politics.

Those of us who believe responsible and respectful public debate is essential to democracy, increases public participation, inspires more thoughtful leaders and leads to better public policy must begin to act.

Restoring post-G20 civility starts with mature dialogue

I wrote the following article for Toronto Community News, it was published this week.

For many Torontonians the events surrounding the G20 Summit challenged our attitudes and sensibilities towards fairness, order and civil liberties. Yet the longer term threat to our democracy is a seeming unwillingness, or incapacity, for mature public dialogue around what exactly went wrong that June weekend.

Aside from the brief meeting of world leaders and the distressing personal accounts of witnessed violence, damaged property and police confrontations, the essential fact is this: there were twice as many arrests during the summit weekend than in the weeks following the introduction of the War Measures Act by the federal government forty years ago. That legislation giving police extraordinary powers during the October Crisis followed political kidnappings – leading to murder, bombings throughout Montreal and specific threats of violence from an identified group, the FLQ. By contrast, most of the G20 arrests came after some burned police cars and broken storefront windows caused by a couple dozen masked trouble makers.

This distinction is not made to diminish the vandalism that occurred, but rather to question the proportionality of response by security forces. Was that response a panicked, gross overreaction? Part of a strategic, if cynical justification for the $1 billion spent on summit security, or for a law restricting civil liberties passed outside public view? Or was it an effort to quell public dissent towards global leaders and their actions – or inaction – on a host of issues?

Seeking answers to these and other relevant questions is the responsibility of every citizen who wishes to reside in a free society. Efforts by some of those in positions of power to delay or discourage the need for broad public dialogue should be vigorously challenged. Attempts to divide residents by leveraging lingering emotions must be dismissed for what they are: partisan ploys to score cheap political points.

In fact, the large majority of protestors participated in peaceful demonstrations in order to raise awareness of global issues ranging from intolerable levels of poverty to climate change. They marched in the heat and the rain for their beliefs, as is their constitutional right. Those who attempt to diminish the importance of this right and the seriousness with which it was exercised display a startling lack of respect for democracy.

By the same measure, sweeping condemnations of all police officers are as unhelpful and unnecessary as the politically expedient declarations of unquestionable support are. Many frontline officers appeared to have carried out their duties to the best of their abilities given the complexities of working in a multi-agency environment under unprecedented scrutiny.

Regardless of personal biases or gut reactions to the events as they unfolded in real time, it is in the public interest that factual, inclusive and respectful dialogue accompanies both formal reviews of summit security and informal conversations taking place across the city. Those conversations should be led by reasoned voices and listened to with empathetic ears.

Only by pursuing this course of action can Toronto restore some of the civility it lost that sorry weekend in June.

Put People First in City Election Campaign

I have been tiring of the narrow city election debate so wrote the following article for my community newspaper the Bloor West Villager.

Put People First in City Election Campaign

As debate heats up on who will lead the city after the next municipal election, it appears financial statements are receiving far more attention than the well-being of residents. In a devastating economic recession, with too many individuals sleeping on our streets, too few youth with genuine opportunities for the future and too many families struggling with the impact of job losses, this focal point is as politically short-sighted as it is morally unjustifiable.

While there is an emerging conventional wisdom that the city’s finances are a mess and radical change is needed, it is always worthwhile to question conventional wisdom, particularly in politics. Consider:

• Toronto has one of the lowest residential property tax rates in the GTA.
• Toronto welcomes more new residents from than any other city in Canada – bringing with them many benefits but also necessary settlement costs.
• Toronto, unlike other major cities in the world, shoulders most or all of the cost for some public services such as the operating costs of public transit.
• Toronto’s municipal government, unlike the federal and provincial governments, is legally prevented from running a deficit.

Now let’s consider these facts in another context.

Imagine a family whose income was less than that of its neighbours. The neighbourhood kids like to visit this safe and friendly home thus adding to the family’s expenses. This family is forced to pay for services others receive at no cost and unlike others, this family cannot borrow money to purchase essential items or temporarily cover additional expenses. Oblivious to circumstance, many people will chastise this family for poor money management.

In this context, such a reaction is preposterous, even uninformed. Yet it is exactly with this same righteous indignation that many mayoralty candidates are demanding Toronto “get its financial house in order” while ignoring many other important issues.

Candidates who see opportunity in sensationalizing the city’s fiscal situation for political gain must therefore be challenged to provide intellectually honest answers to some obvious questions. Would they sell money-making city assets to raise funds? Eliminate small grants to community organizations? Raise taxes? Or cut spending to one of the city’s largest expenditures, the police force?

Most importantly, how will the candidates make Toronto a more livable city for all residents?

The current narrowly focused debate fails to recognize the very real challenges, hopes and dreams of Torontonians. It also ignores advice from local economists like Don Drummond and Richard Florida who argue public investment in infrastructure and the arts help create the conditions for economic growth.

Regrettably, we are not hearing enough from the candidates about such investments – from increasing access to public transit to supporting programs for at-risk youth, providing safe housing options for individuals in need to creating new artistic and cultural initiatives.

Yes municipal financial statements are important. But the true health of a city can be measured by the well-being of its residents. The municipal election campaign is now four months old; it’s time the candidates started putting people first.

Christopher Holcroft

Civil debate

The following article on political debate in Toronto - picked up in print by my local paper the Bloor West Villager (Dec. 4) - is part of two broader but related topics of concern to me - civil debate and civic engagement that I will be exploring in greater detail in the coming months.

Political debate in Toronto

Toronto faces multiple policy challenges requiring reasoned, respectful discussion between civic leaders and residents - taxes and services, transportation and infrastructure and poverty and equality, to name a few. But unless we reverse this recent trend towards intolerant, divisive public debate, our city is destined to be mired in mediocrity; our progress stalled by overt partisanship and an alienated, disengaged citizenry.

Toronto's positive reputation comes in large measure from the basic civility of its residents - our acceptance of one another, including our diverse backgrounds and opinions. It is this civility which is now threatened by a quality of public debate unworthy of a schoolyard shoving match.

Some recent examples include:

- Council debate over the proposed redevelopment of downtown Jarvis Street. The plan called for reducing one of five traffic lanes, widening sidewalks, planting trees and installation bike lanes. Many supported the re-urbanization of this historic Toronto thoroughfare, while critics expressed concern over the possibility of traffic congestion. But when certain conservative councillors used hyperbolic rhetoric to declare a "war on motorists", the seriousness of this debate was diminished.

- The city's summer labour dispute frustrated residents as well as negotiators on both sides of the issue. In an ad campaign criticizing the negotiating position of civic workers, Canadian Federation of Independent Business CEO Catherine Swift referred to "so-called city workers", immediately weakening the overall civility of public discussions around the dispute. Rather than contributing to efforts to find common ground, the commercials only hardened attitudes and deepened divisions.

- Instead of rising above what she perceived as venomous comments on a recent radio call-in show discussing Mayor David Miller's political record, Councillor Sandra Bussin joined the fray by mocking host John Tory as an electoral loser. As a result, the councillor herself became an issue instead of her concern over intolerant comments.

These sorts of interventions by those who should know better do nothing to further constructive debate on important issues. In fact, they only increase public cynicism towards government while encouraging simplistic solutions to complex policy problems.

We need to hear more from those who empathize with alternate points of view and less from those who demonize them. We need to hear arguments based on reason and evidence, not anger or fear. We need debate that encourages people to join in, not turn away.

The responsibility for the health of our civic discourse does not rest with our politicians alone however; it is shared by all of us. We are fortunate to have this responsibility, one that many other citizens of this world long for. We should embrace it with an open mind and an understanding heart, a healthy dose of skepticism and a touch of humility.

So as the city prepares for an election next year, by all means, bring on vigorous debate. But let us maintain our collective civility. After all, that is the story of Toronto, and that is how we will continue to build a great city.

Christopher Holcroft

H1N1 and two-tier health care

In response to the story about Toronto Public Health providing vaccines to a private clinic that charges patients thousands of dollars in annual membership fees, I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Toronto Star, which published the piece today.

Editor, Toronto Star

The news that a Toronto for-profit clinic was provided with H1N1 vaccinations for clients willing and able to pay thousands of dollars while pregnant women, young children and individuals with chronic conditions waited hours in line at public clinics reminds us of how unjust two-tier health care is. This is a reality that should have occurred to Toronto Public Health before it provided the vaccines to a private company. Canadians concluded long ago that access to quality health care should not be determined by the size of your bank account. We must continue to stand on guard for this principle – even when our own government agencies lose sight of it.

Christopher Holcroft