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November 21st 2013 print

James Allan

Private Vice and Public Trust

To what extent, if at all, should Toronto's crack-smoking mayor be stripped of authority when his performance on the job has been remarkable good? It’s not an easy question

rob fordMy wife and I are nearing the end of our year-long sabbatical in North America.  We’re now living in the city with the world’s best known mayor, namely Toronto, Canada, with its crack-smoking Rob Ford (left) as mayor.  He’s on the news everywhere.  I’ve been giving talks in the US recently and he has dominated the news down there too.  I’m assuming news of his exploits has made it to Australia as well.

Of course it’s a more nuanced story than you’re likely to have heard on the ABC, or Canada’s CBC.   Yes, Mr. Ford is something of a buffoon; he’s grossly over-weight; he seems clearly to have a drinking problem; he has a proclivity to yell at people; and at some point last year he took illegal drugs.

Let’s put it no higher than this.  On a personal level he clearly has more than a normal amount of personal failings.  Rob Ford is no one’s choice of role model.  You can feel sorry for him, or repelled by him, but few would want to be like him.

So take that all as read.  But there is another side to the Rob Ford story that much of the media (with its usual biases) doesn’t want to talk about.  You see, on the professional level, in terms of doing his job, Rob Ford seems to have been quite functional.

…at this point some of us might enjoy a laugh or two at the  sheer hypocrisy of more than a few people who defended Clinton to the hilt but who would go to any lengths imaginable to see Rob Ford chucked from office…

Mr. Ford has done what he promised when he came to office, winning huge swathes of the vote of the outer suburb Mom and Dad with families voters but few if any of the inner city chardonnay-sipping voters (who have hated him from day one).

So there’s one nuance that gets little attention in this affair.

Related to that is this. To what extent do you think one’s personal failings make one ineligible for a job where there’s no evidence of an inability to do that job?  It’s not an easy question.  Personally, I’m on the anti-paternalist side of things.  I didn’t think Bill Clinton ought to have been impeached by the Republicans for what were personal failings.  Recall that President Clinton’s failings were alleged to those related to his personal conduct.  Those sort of things are relevant, in my mind, to the question of whether you might wish to vote for someone.  But they’re not relevant to whether he ought to be removed from office over the heads of the voters.  (And I should add that I didn’t support Clinton on the impeachment question just because the jokes swirling around at the time made my life incredibly enjoyable, though they did.)

Now, of course, at this point some of us might enjoy a laugh or two at the expense of the sheer hypocrisy of more than a few people who defended Clinton to the hilt but who would go to any lengths imaginable to see Rob Ford chucked from office.  I suppose they might try to counter this suggestion of hypocrisy by saying that taking illegal drugs is a criminal offence, while seducing a teenage intern in the White House (and then lying about what you did, or at least indulging in sophistical and Jesuitical legalisms to gloss over the point) is not.  So it’s not just a morality thing, they might say; it’s also a criminal thing.

Well, maybe.  But if the desire to get rid of Ford is solely to do with the illegal nature of past drug taking then why stop at crack cocaine use a year ago?  What about the joints of pot smoked back in university days?  That was illegal.  Would that qualify the myriad politicians who inhaled for removal from office?  Will Ford’s critics push for their removal too?

I suspect many of those wanting Ford out would say ‘no’, or at least ‘not if it’s a politician whose underlying views I share’.  In other words, that hardly avoids the charge of hypocrisy.

As it has panned out, the Toronto Council does not have the power to remove Mr. Ford from office.  So its members have instead voted to leave him as mayor in name only, removing him from key committees and taking away most of his staff.  Whether this is wise from their point of view depends on how you calculate the benefits and costs of making someone a bizarre sort of martyr with no responsibility at all for any tough decisions that might have to be taken between today and the next Toronto elections, a year from now.

But there really is something undemocratic about not leaving this decision with the voters.  I don’t have any problem with a voter saying that the man is too much of an ill-tempered buffoon ever again to get his or her vote (whether on board with the Ford ‘smaller government outlook’ or not). But having other elected city councillors remove him, or half-remove him, or to do so in all but name, is somehow to me contemptuous of the voters.  At any rate it is not my cup of tea.

Mr Ford now promises to run again a year from now.  Meantime, he says he’s going to lose a lot of weight and give up alcohol.  There are plenty of grounds for being sceptical about those claims.  But should he pull them both off, you wouldn’t want to bet your mortgage against him in the next election.

 

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law, University of Queensland