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  • Cutting through the RhetoricThe Rise and Fall of Austerity Narratives in Toronto's Budget Battle
  • Dominique Rivière (bio) and Joe Curnow (bio)

In October 2010, Robert Ford was elected the new mayor of Toronto. His campaign hinged on a narrative of wasteful spending and excessive city government, to which he proposed an alternative agenda of "respect for taxpayers." His platform included plans to cut taxes without reducing services and programming and to lower the staffing levels of city departments—in short, a rollout of a significant austerity agenda.

Austerity refers to a package of economic policies, practices, programs, and other measures designed to cut costs for the state by limiting public-sector expenditures, primarily through cuts to social services and public employees' wages, security, and benefits (Elmhirst 2010; McBride and Whiteside 2011a). This is often accomplished through privatization, anti-union legislation, and other pro-business practices that redirect public dollars into private enterprises. In our current era, austerity is ideologically anchored to neoliberal [End Page 27] policies of economics and governance. Throughout this article we qualify austerity in three ways, though we note that all three usages are mutually constitutive and, together, can serve to bolster public support for austerity:

"austerity agenda" refers to a particular neoliberal economic ideology

"austerity narrative"/"narrative of austerity" refers to the use of abstract, metaphorical terms (e.g., "gravy train")1 to connote fiscal waste, excess, irresponsibility, etc.

"austerity measure" refers to concrete political actions that weaken public resources and services

(e.g., reducing library hours)

Ford's platform fell in line with global neoliberal politics at the time, which advocated a severe austerity agenda that, notably, was heavy on the ideological rhetoric but light on specific policy proposals. While Ford aggressively marketed the narratives of austerity, his policy platform was essentially limited to the 2011 budget proposal. Ford was not alone in pushing an austerity agenda, however; within the same period as the mayoral election, the G20 meetings in Toronto promoted international austerity regimes. These regimes gave rise to the imposition of extreme austerity policies in Greece and Ireland, as well as more limited policies throughout the European Union and in municipalities around the world.

For Toronto, however, "austerity" was a dramatic shift from its previous mayoral administrations. As such, the backlash against Ford's austerity agenda grew steadily and swiftly, achieving a measure of success one year after he was sworn in as mayor. Taken as a narrative case study (Riessman 2011), therefore, the story of the rise and fall of the Ford administration's austerity agenda provides a fascinating opportunity for analyzing the ways in which narrative plays an important role in tracing the shifts in the political and ideological terrain of neoliberal economic policies more broadly.

The unraveling of austerity narratives in Toronto is in some ways, an outlier within the global context. We recognize that the Toronto experience with austerity is quite different from other international contexts, yet we argue that it can offer useful lessons for those resisting the power of the neoliberal economic ideology. As a case study of the failure of an [End Page 28] austerity agenda, we examine what the 2012 budget process in Toronto can tell us more generally about austerity policies and the opposition to them, both locally and globally. We focus here on the newspaper media coverage of the rise and fall of Ford's austerity discourse, using narrative analysis as the method of elucidating the storied nature of that coverage.

We are interested in the narrative structure of both local and national media reports about the budget process in Toronto, because "so natural is the impulse to narrate, that the form is almost inevitable for any report of how things happened, a solution to the problem of how to translate knowing into telling" (Riessman 2002a: 219; cf. White 1989; emphasis added). Moreover, while much of the scholarship on narrative-based methods of analysis and inquiry deals with records of individuals' lived experience—such as interview transcripts or participant journals—that are prompted by researchers (see Connelly and Clandinin 2000; Frank 2002; Pepper and Wildy 2009; Huber et al. 2013), we maintain that "[n]arratives are forms of discourse, vehicles...


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