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Four years of Rob Ford has badly corroded Toronto’s political ethics

Only 12% of GTA voters are satisfied with the ethics of municipal politicians

Toronto mayor Rob Ford

(Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty)

This week marks the passing of the regime of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, but the true costs of his leadership for Toronto the Good are still being counted. Ford’s legacy starts with casting Toronto as a national and international joke. His leaderless administration failed to tackle Toronto’s most pressing issues. He personally induced a climate where city staff were unwilling to address issues for fear of incurring the Mayor’s wrath. Ford will leave office with Torontonians facing higher taxes for the foreseeable future. And by encouraging wedge politics, pitting the suburbs against the central City core, Ford promoted the worst inclinations in our citizens. Instead of bringing us together, Rob Ford sought to stimulate divisions and fracture a sense of common purpose among our citizens.

Nowhere is Ford’s negative impact likely to be greater, however, than in his ethical legacy to the City.

Rob Ford, defended at every turn by his brother Doug, was prepared to regularly lie about his addictions, to abuse his oath of office, to associate with criminal elements, to dismiss his racist and misogynistic comments as the new normal, and to attack and bully those with the courage to confront him—as if they, not he, were at fault for his transgressions. Getting even with opponents appeared far more important to Mayor Ford than the truth. What kind of message has our Chief Magistrate passed on to Toronto voters about politics and politicians at City Hall?

In recently commissioned research by Ryerson’s Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership program about the Ethics of Political Leadership, some disturbing trends about the ethical impact of the mayor’s reign of error have been highlighted. Although the polling was initially set to be national in scope, we decided to ‘oversample’ the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in order to obtain statistically significant data about our own city.

Our operating hypothesis was that mayors and city councillors, being closer to the public, would receive higher ethical grades from the voters than would provincial or federal politicians. This hypothesis was proven generally true across Canada. Canadians were most likely to be satisfied with the ethical behaviour of municipal politicians, although almost a third answered they were not satisfied with their ethical behaviour.

Turning to our own region, only 12% of those living in the GTA are satisfied with the ethical behaviour of municipal politicians, as compared to 23% in the rest of the province. A number of well-publicized recent incidents of ethical failures by politicians, ranging from charges of misuse of public funds to conflicts of interest and even fraud that may have coloured such results.

This ethical gap continues when looking at respondents’ satisfaction with the ethical behaviour of their mayor – 35% of those living outside of the GTA were satisfied; only 23% of those living in the GTA were satisfied while 42% were not satisfied. However, there was no statistical difference between those who live in and outside of the GTA on their evaluation of their own municipal councillors. The mayor seemed to be singled out for special disapproval.

Delving more deeply into the data, we can see the extent to which Torontonians were dissatisfied with the ethical behaviour of municipal politicians is a reflection of their dissatisfaction with Mayor Ford. Among Toronto respondents to our survey, 61% said they were dissatisfied with their mayor, while 25% were moderately satisfied and 11% were satisfied. That is almost a 40 point gap when compared to what respondent thought about their mayor in the rest of the GTA. Only 22% in the rest of the GTA were dissatisfied with their mayor’s ethical behaviour while 34% were satisfied and 40% were moderately satisfied.

Such statistics likely reflect the impact of the voter attitude behind another of our key findings: over 80% of respondents to our survey either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that a politician who is dishonest in his or her personal life cannot be trusted in their professional role. More generally, our results show that Canadians believe that personal behaviour and personal ethics matters. This lesson goes far beyond the folly of Rob Ford: it paints a clear picture of the new reality regarding what voters expect—and deserve—from their elected leaders.

Hershell Ezrin is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University and a Senior Fellow at the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre. Chris MacDonald is founding director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review. Follow him at @ethicsblogger