When I first started following the crazy mixed-up world of Toronto City Council, I flagged two Ford-allied councillors — and Executive Committee members — as likely to move away from their support for the Ford administration in 2011. It felt like a safe bet. Both Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson were new councillors with political histories that didn’t really lend themselves to loyal support for a mayoral administration that would inevitably define itself with a series of deep service cuts.
I was mostly right on Robinson, who in her pre-council life was a City of Toronto staffer linked to Nuit Blanche and other city events. She’s currently in a slightly maddening in-between stage where she’ll sometimes leave the room during council votes, preferring to be recorded as ‘Absent.’ But it’s hard to hold that against her too much, given that a record of publicly opposing the mayor could very well cost her a seat on Ford’s Executive Committee. And it was her public stance against Doug Ford’s Ferris Wheel Dream that finally swayed things on the waterfront file in September.
But my other pick, long-time Liberal Party member Berardinetti, has blazed her own trail. In the past couple of weeks, she’s come out smiling as the “compassionate” flag-bearer of Rob Ford’s 2012 budget, a role that requires some giant-sized leaps of logic and ideology.
To wit: She waged a vociferous public war against the availability of “Hollywood” movies at the Toronto Public Library, calling for a $2 charge for titles like — and these are her examples — Rambo and Little Fockers. She acknowledged that such a charge would require a change to provincial law, but when she attempted to get MPPs on board, her efforts were roundly shot down. She later engaged in an on-air battle with Councillor Adam Vaughan on NewsTalk 1010, in which she denied voting to close a library in his ward last year, despite the official record indicating that she did, in fact, vote to close the Urban Affairs Library. She denounced Vaughan’s use of the phrase “War on Children” to describe the 2012 budget, despite her own council campaign pushing a message that David Miller waged an “attack on motorists.” And on Josh Matlow’s radio show on Sunday, she spoke glowingly of Ford’s former Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis, and raised no immediate objection when the spin doctor suggested cutting the entire Toronto Environmental Office to pay for school nutrition programs. Her December 2011 newsletter to constituents includes a section on the 2012 budget that reads like it came directly from the mayor’s office.
Perhaps the best example of her new brand of compassionate fiscal conservatism came when she floated (to the Toronto Sun) a proposal to encourage retailers to donate revenue from the mandatory five cent plastic bag fee back to City Hall, to cover the cost of programs that are currently on the chopping block. Not a terrible idea on the surface of it, but it continues the disturbing trend where Ford-allied councillors seek to boost recently-eliminated city revenues with voluntary fees and donations, as if you can run a $10 billion corporation like a branch of UNICEF.
(In the midst of all this, Berardinetti also appeared alongside the mayor in a National Ballet of Canada production of The Nutcracker. This might be notable as an indication of just how deep into the mayor’s inner circle Berardinetti is these days, but she and Ford deserve nothing but praise for their appearance. It was a really cool thing for both to do.)
All this brings to mind only one question: Why? After Berardinetti’s husband was returned to Queen’s Park in October — the venerable Liberal brand victorious over the once-mighty Ford Nation — there was a reasonable expectation that she may start pulling back. The mayor’s less-than-stellar poll numbers in recent months certainly don’t make for a compelling case for throwing your lot in with the Rob Ford crew. And while the mayor is definitely more popular in Scarborough than he is in other parts of the city, neighbouring councillors like Raymond Cho and Glenn De Baeremaeker (and sometimes Chin Lee) don’t seem to be taking much flack from constituents over their opposition.
So maybe Berardinetti’s support isn’t a game of political calculus or hedging her bets but rather just, you know, sincerity. Maybe she’s found a way to reconcile her Liberal Party roots with the Ford brand of politics at City Hall. But then again: if it’s possible for a card-carrying Liberal to unreservedly embrace the policies and outlook of one of the most conservative mayors Toronto has ever seen — a guy with a photo of Mike Harris hanging in his office — what the hell does that say about the Liberal Party?