I will give every member of Toronto City Council a big pile of nickels if they promise never to debate plastic bags again.
That’s probably unlikely, though—especially now. Last week, Council made the surprising decision to ban single-use plastic shopping bags starting January 1, 2013. Depending on who you ask, this is either a sensible decision—one that follows an environmental example set by other major cities—or a sign of the socialist apocalypse.
In truth, the move isn’t a huge deal. Shoppers and retailers will adapt. There will be far fewer plastic bags in our landfills and blowing around in parks. In a couple of years, few will even remember that grocery stores once offered plastic bags.
But politically, this is a topic that’s liable to stick around for a while. The mayor and his brother spent almost a full hour discussing plastic bags on their radio show Sunday, holding up the doomed shopping bag as a makeshift flag of liberty. Both Fords promised that Council would revisit the issue.
On the other side, even bag ban supporters are worried about implementation. This was a snap decision by Council that calls for a very short timeline. It’s going to be tough to ensure the ban goes through smoothly—especially with the mayor ready to run defensive plays and continuously decry the ban.
So how did such a surprising, divisive decision come about? Let’s look to the scorecard.
The New Votes
- EX 20.2, Motion 1, Part 1 by Councillor Michelle Berardinetti tried to delete a recommendation by Ford’s Executive Committee that called for the repeal of the mandatory five cent plastic bag fee. It failed on a tie, 22-22.
- EX20.2, Motion 8 was the out-of-nowhere motion by conservative and Executive Committee member Councillor David Shiner. It suggested that the city take aggressive steps toward banning plastic bags. It passed 24-20.
Comparing the results of these two votes tells the real story.
Some have characterized the bag ban as a reactionary move by a council that just plain doesn’t like the mayor, but that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The only real strategic gambit by the usual suspects in the opposition was a move by Shelley Carroll to refer the whole issue. It’s also not true that this move came about because of some vaguely-socialistic desire to dictate behaviour and help the environment. Shiner is anything but a bleeding heart.
What really made the difference last week was “mushy middle” councillors like Josh Colle and Ana Bailão who mostly just seemed frustrated by the whole idea of debating plastic bags. Colle even mentioned how irrelevant he found the proceedings in a speech on the issue.
With council’s left pushing to maintain an imperfect status quo—a “tax” that the city can’t even collect—and the mayor’s side advocating a return to the halcyon days of free plastic bags for everyone, the notion of an outright ban became the centrist plank by default—a third choice. By comparison, it might have seemed like the most rational move for a lot of councillors in the middle.
Council continues to see a minor schism amongst Ford supporters, with true believers on one side and weary conservatives on the other. The mayor’s only got about 13 votes—including his own—that he can count on in virtually every situation.
This council meeting also saw the triumphant return of Councillor Ron Moeser. The Scarborough councillor had missed most votes so far in 2012 while battling a serious illness. Good to see him back in the chamber.
While not an unqualified victory, the tie vote that resulted in the (temporary) repeal of the mandatory bag fee stands as the first scorecard win for Ford since January.