Itâe(TM)s been the hot topic in Toronto media for more than a month âe” Toronto is broke, and everyone is pointing fingers over whoâe(TM)s at fault. But behind the scenes of mud-slinging and hyperbole gleefully showcased by mainstream media, a more sinister tale can be told of a city in the stranglehold of broken democracy.

Itâe(TM)s a story, really, that could be told about any municipality in Canada. Itâe(TM)s the struggle between the creation of progressive policies, and the media-savvy right-wing lobby groups who stand in the way.

In Torontoâe(TM)s case, itâe(TM)s not just that the city is broke, but itâe(TM)s also that the tax issue has been taken over by the right âe” forcing the most recent tax proposals to fail on the floor âe” and the media has been convinced that these right-wing lobbyists speak for the homeowners and residents of the city.

This particular story begins on May 2, when the city sent out notices indicating that a series of four public consultations on âeoeRevenue Tools or Revenue Optionsâe (a friendlier reference to new taxes) would take place in May.

The notices were sent out only five days before the first consultation would take place. Perhaps those who proposed the consultations felt five days notice was enough. Or perhaps, as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business suggests, the intention was to stifle an organized response to the proposal of new taxes.

What matters though is that a right-wing lobby and a cooperative corporate media hijacked what was meant to be a participatory exercise in public consultation and deliberative democracy.

This hijacking began at the first consultation on May 7 at the Harbourfront Centre, when the meeting was interrupted in the first few minutes by Canadian Taxpayers Federation representative Kevin Gaudet (although he never identified himself to the crowd).

Gaudet, a former employee of Preston Manning in the days when the Reform Party existed, demanded the meeting agenda be amended so that time could be allocated to question the city about its spending.

Never mind that independent audits have put Toronto at par with the spending of other major cities in North America. Never mind that this wasnâe(TM)t the purpose of the meeting for which over 100 people had attended. Gaudet, a professional lobbyist, shouted down any who opposed him and eventually won time from the frazzled city employees to vent his anti-tax rhetoric in front of the media.

Gaudet had help. Representatives from the Real Estate Board and members of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which had sent out a notice urging people to attend under the slogan of âeoeNot Another Cent,âe stood and shouted in support of Gaudet.

And the corporate media pounced all over it. The next dayâe(TM)s headlines read: âeoeWho wants the city to hike taxes?âe from the Toronto Star and âeoeRowdy kick-off to tax talks; Toronto residents speak out in first of four meetingsâe from The National Post, while television coverage was even more sensational, with Gaudet featured in several news reports.

The repercussions when journalists donâe(TM)t do their homework are enormous.

Those who spoke in favour of a parking tax to curb car use in the city; those who proposed greater fees for billboards in order to limit infringement on public space; and those who proposed numerous other progressive and environmental taxes âe” no one would have gleaned that they existed or had spoken out, judging from news reports.

Soon, despite the manufactured backlash, the city proposed two new sets of taxes: a land-transfer tax and an extra fee for car registration. Both were lauded by proponents as being progressive and a smart choice.

âeoeI’d say he had a winner in both new taxes,âe wrote Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin in a piece that also ran on a few weeks ago. âeoeLand transfer taxes would mainly affect developers and speculators âe¦ Downtowners (like me) who saw their taxes rise as their property value theoretically soared, but who never planned to cash in because we love our homes, would’ve seen some relief. The car registration tax reflects everyone’s main concern: the environment.âe

The Real Estate Board, however, went on the attack, buying full-page ads in the Toronto Star decrying the tax. CityTV, as an example of media coverage, ran notices at commercial breaks calling it one of âeoeTorontoâe(TM)s biggest tax hikes everâe and featured a story on the terrible effects on homeowners of the land-tranfer tax. But who was the source that spoke on behalf of Toronto homeowners? A representative of the Real Estate Board.

A divided council, coupled with an organized lobby against the taxes, voted by a margin of one to postpone a vote on the new taxes until after the Ontario provincial election.

The hope was that this would put pressure on the province to bail Toronto out (considering the province hasnâe(TM)t yet reversed the Harris governmentâe(TM)s downloading of provincially-mandated services to the city).

Roger Keil, director of York Universityâe(TM)s City Institute, a research facility with expertise in municipal policy, laments the poor organization of progressive groups within the scope of this debate.

âeoe[T]his is the most regressive setback to progressive politics in years,âe wrote Keil via e-mail. âeoeNot because I think Miller is particularly progressive, but because âe¦ it means that the political right in this city could effectively mobilize resistance to what seemed a decent plan to make those pay more taxes who have the money to make major purchases (rather than spreading the burden around to all tax payers rich and poor).âe

This âeoepolitical right,âe says Keil, is an âeoeamalgam of conservative politicians âe¦ who play a broken record of fiscal conservatism and appeal to the many homeowners’ suspicions about what ‘their’ taxes pay for (lazy welfare bums, drug addicts, immigrants, transit, clean air, etc.); and of the bottom feeders of the urban economy âe” the car dealers and real estate brokers who suck endless windfalls out of the urban economy.âe

Itâe(TM)s a situation, unfortunately, that ends up favouring the voices of home and business owners âe” who statistically vote in greater numbers âe” and marginalizing those without property.

Democratic theorist Jürgen Habermas has referred to an âeoeideal speech situationâe where everyone has an equal voice; itâe(TM)s a popular vision of what democracy should be. Clearly, public consultation in this city, with an organized right-wing lobby and an uncritical corporate media, does not meet this criterion.

A council that cowers in the face of negative press and screaming lobbyists, signals an even worse affront to democracy âe” one in which those who donâe(TM)t have the privilege of time to organize and attend meetings to âeoedeliberateâe have their thoughts and voices ignored.

This sorry state of affairs reveals a fundamental flaw in the City of Toronto: We may not only have a tax deficit, but a democratic deficit. If we fix the latter, the former is bound to take care of itself.

Tor Sandberg

Tor Sandberg

Tor Sandberg is the program director for rabbletv. When Tor was 8 years old, the two schoolyard bullies, Allen and Roger, made up a mean little ditty about him. “Let’s tear Tor in the Northwest...