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Opinion

The problem with bad apples

Published on 26/06/2013

They say a bad apple will spoil the barrel. If we look at press and newscast accounts of the City of Toronto and the Canadian Senate these days, it certainly seems to be the case. Government in Toronto is deemed “a mess” and the Senate is judged so broken that it should be altered or abandoned.

But is it true? Has the barrel been spoiled in Toronto or in the Senate?

In the popular depiction, the bad apples are clear. In Toronto it is said to be the mayor, no stranger to headlines. In the Senate it is Senators Duffy and Wallin who seem to have trouble knowing where they live and keeping their receipts straight.

And they are not alone in the news firmament. Montreal civic government seems rife with scoundrels, and in every province and city there seems to be someone providing front page fodder. And let’s not get started on talking about the corporate world, or loose fingered charities. It sometimes seems the whole world is on the take, except for you and me of course.

But are these examples of the typical or the unusual? Is government in Toronto a mess? Are all Senators useless or worse?

Three times in the last decade there has been a review of the administration and financial management of the City of Toronto, the first led by then City Manager Shirley Hoy, the second by a blue-chip panel chaired by respected business executive Blake Hutcheson, and the third by KPMG at the request of Mayor Rob Ford. The basic conclusion of all three was that there were things to fix on the margins but that for the most part the city was well managed and prudent.

For the last two years City Manager Joe Pennachetti has delivered a public speech on the state of the city at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, and his message was clear: the city understands its challenges and has structured itself to meet them effectively. Far from giving the impression of “a mess,” he has indicated that the government of the city is in capable hands.

In fact, many people who watch the city closely have come to the conclusion that the senior managers of the city, led by Pennachetti, have pulled together (almost like a regency) to make sure that the city does not get thrown off course by the turbulence.

City Council, against the expectations of many, has adjusted to the turbulence and been able to not only rescue threatened plans and policies, such as transit expansion and waterfront renewal, but innovate on electoral reform and human rights. Leaders have emerged on various issues, and working coalitions formed.

And the city thrives with building cranes slanting against the landscape, new companies starting and succeeding, newcomers arriving every day, and higher rankings each year among world cities.

In Ottawa, the Senate continues to provide value to Canadians in its understated way, in the shadow of the show that is the House of Commons. The Senate is the more diverse, well-credentialed, and substantive house of our parliament. The substance comes in good part because its members are appointed, like other public officials such as judges and commissioners, and can take time to focus on issues and develop expertise without fear of being whipped on every vote or political point.

Over the years through its standing committees and special studies, the Senate has produced stellar reports on mass media concentration, poverty, pipelines, security intelligence, retirement age policies, fisheries, aboriginal peoples, mental health, health care and cities. Its ongoing work on banking and financial institutions has been largely responsible for the stable banking system that protected Canadians from the degree of devastation suffered by others in the 2008 Great Recession. On a regular basis the Senate goes deep on issues and produces value for Canadians.

And on top of that, the Senate regularly improves legislation coming out of the House of Commons, making sure it doesn’t conflict with other legislation and that it actually contains the mechanisms for implementation. This drafting capability is indispensable at the same time as it is invisible to most Canadians.

A few bad apples have led some to believe that the Senate is broken and the City is a mess. But you can deal with bad apples by taking them out of the barrel, making sure they don’t spoil the rest. But it is unwise to throw out the whole barrel just because we spot a few bad apples.

Summary

Despite the scandalous headlines, Canada’s Senate and Toronto’s City Hall are effective and functioning well.

Topic(s)

Cities and communities, Civic engagement