Saturday, January 19, 2019

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Rock and Roll Politics

Toronto journalists have spent the past two weeks discussing the Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto concert from every conceivable angle, ranging from an impending public relations and security disaster to a modern Woodstock. While I’m usually not one to speak where others have already spoken so much and, for the most part, so well, I have a particularly unique perspective from which to comment on the concert.

I work for Dennis Mills, the Toronto-Danforth MP who, along with Senator Jerry Grafstein, was the brains behind the whole exercise. As such, I saw the process unfold bit by bit, experienced every bump along the road, and learned some very important things about how politics can be practised in this country. I’m not going to tell any dark secrets, largely because there aren’t any, and I’m not going to deify Dennis or Senator Grafstein, even though they deserve it. I’m not even going to talk about anything related to sex, drugs, or rock and roll. I’m not going to do these things because for me the concert was more about the emergence of a new way of doing politics, or perhaps the re-emergence of an old one. It’s an example that other federal, provincial, and municipal political leaders should learn from.

As has been discussed at length recently, Dennis is a dreamer – perhaps not surprising since he worked for Prime Minister Trudeau. When Toronto was hit hard by SARS and the World Health Organization’s travel ban, he understood that something needed to be done. Something big. Bigger, to be sure, than the grudging allotment of federal aid money or a platitude from the Prime Minister’s or Premier’s office. So, he decided that the only government capable of captivating the world’s attention and sending the appropriate message was, to quote Dennis himself, the Imperial Government of the Rolling Stones. The rest, as they say, is history.

What was far more interesting to me was the way Dennis, Senator Grafstein and their team – our team, I suppose – adjusted to circumstances so quickly and easily. When the idea was first floated, the federal and provincial governments were to be on the hook for the full $10 million that the event would cost. We crunched the numbers and proved to our satisfaction that the PST and GST revenues on ticket sales, hotel room rentals, meals, transportation and other incidentals that guests visiting Toronto would incur would easily exceed the estimated $10 million price tag. This nuts-and-bolts calculation did not take into account the tremendous economic benefit that would result from the rehabilitation of Toronto and Canada’s international reputation with tourists and their dollars. Indeed, a recent report released on August 6 by Moneris Solutions, Canada’s largest processor of debit and credit card transactions, estimates that spending in the GTA increased by $75.3 million during the period of July 27 to August 2. The GST and PST revenues on that figure amount to some $5 million each.

However, the public was vehemently opposed to the idea of public money being used to fund a rock and roll concert. Irrespective of our calculations and assurances that the public treasury would profit from the investment, the people that contacted our office insisted that this was not an acceptable idea.

Personally, I was frustrated – rationally, the use of public money made perfect sense. It would have been profitable for the public and it would have achieved the goals that we were aiming towards without having to involve the private sector and satisfy their own demands. Dennis and Senator Grafstein simply changed tacks. Instead of giving up or trying to foist their vision on the public, they adapted their plans to satisfy the public. They sat down with representatives from the private sector and managed, after much debate and a few pints of Molson Canadian, to secure more than half of the $10 million they needed. Of course, this did not come without a cost. Molson now had the marketing rights and tickets increased in price to $21.50, still a very reasonable charge but an increase over the initial estimate. In the days and weeks leading up to the concert Dennis and Senator Grafstein were constantly reminding the various private-sector interests that the event was about Toronto, about Canada, and about Canadians, instead of the bottom line. Rest assured the private sector interests still made some money off the event, but not nearly as much as they might have had Dennis and Senator Grafstein not been so stubbornly vigilant in defence of their vision of the concert.

This isn’t to say that the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto were any more agreeable. Getting federal representatives to support their vision was an exceedingly difficult task for Dennis and the Senator, and even more exasperating for me. That our government would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on bilingualism initiatives but not a single penny on an event that could help spark a revival of Toronto’s ailing hospitality sector and put thousands of people back to work made absolutely no sense to me. It was even more baffling that we had the most difficulty securing support from two ministers from Toronto, who shall remain nameless.

While Dennis and Senator Grafstein have nothing but good things to say about them and their other colleagues in the Toronto Liberal caucus, I’m a bit more critical. I suspect that their reticence to support the concert was largely motivated by personal and political jealousy, not wanting to be upstaged by a backbench MP and a Senator, this kind of “undynamic duo” if one shares the widely held belief that backbenchers and Senators are utterly powerless to do much other than fly first-class and walk unrecognized down the streets of most cities. While the overwhelming success of the concert proves otherwise, I’ll get to that in a moment. The fact remains that while I was incredibly frustrated with the intellectual lethargy of Toronto’s Liberal ministers Dennis and the Senator kept at them, irrespective of the unreturned phone calls and political gamesmanship. In the end, their persistence paid off.

A few weeks into the planning stages, another disaster struck in Canada – BSE, or “Mad-Cow.” Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to help people, Dennis and the Senator decided to create an “event within an event” to showcase the fact that Canadian beef was the best in the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, the beef BBQ was of an equally preposterous scale, approximately three football fields of BBQ stations. With the professionals from the Rolling Stones, House of Blues entertainment, and Molson taking over the logistical planning of the concert, Dennis and the Senator threw their considerable energies towards promoting and executing the biggest beef BBQ the world had ever seen.

It was at this point that I was convinced that one, if not both of them, would keel over and expire. I’m 23 years old and a relatively hard worker, but they were pulling 18-hour days seven days a week. How could they keep up this pace? I didn’t think it could be done. But they did it, in spite of the many times that the whole train threatened to go off the track (15 times according to the Senator’s calculations). Like champion fighters, Dennis and the Senator simply rolled with the punches, pulling back when threatened and striking when they saw an opening. Whether they have succeeded in “knocking out” the economic malaise that hung over Toronto like a thick layer of smog remains to be seen, but the concert was an improbable yet undeniable KO.

Like I said earlier, I did not write this piece with the intention of deifying Dennis or Senator Grafstein. The message that I want to communicate is a bit subtler than that. Whether by accident or by design, they came across a new way of doing things in this country for political leaders, one that does not require the support of cabinet or the will of the PMO. For Dennis and the Senator, that came after they had laid the considerable groundwork for their dream, not before. To those who think that politicians are powerless in the new global economy, or that governments can’t make a difference in the lives of average Canadians, think again.

It’s not surprising to me that two Trudeau protégés made this happen, because he was a man who always believed in the power of elected officials to do good and to help people. But in this time of political alienation and declining respect for politicians and the work that they do, particularly among my generation, this concert was just what Canada needed. Yes, it revitalized the Toronto economy. Yes, it put thousands of people back to work. Yes, it gave the 450,000 in attendance, or at least those who didn’t pass out from a combination of too much sun and way too much booze, a little satisfaction.

More importantly, it demonstrated that politicians who have a vision and the courage to carry it out are not powerless against the multinational corporations, globalization, the so-called democratic deficit, or any other faceless force. Political leadership does still exist, and Dennis and the Senator’s work stands as an amusing and mildly disturbing irony when contrasted with the Liberal “leadership” race. While those who have been tabbed as leaders by this country’s punditocracy are doing anything but, an upstart backbench MP and his colleague in the supposedly useless Senate managed to grab the world’s attention and pull off one of the most amazing logistical and organization feats in Canadian history.

As the Stones say, you can’t always get what you want. Maybe it’s time our political leaders focused less on this first part and more on the second part of that famous Stones lyric. If, like Dennis and Senator Grafstein, they tried sometimes, we all just might get what we need.

Ottawa, August 6th – 1635 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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