Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s troops were in a triumphant mood Wednesday morning. An appeal court had just stayed a judge’s decision that blocked Mr. Ford’s sudden move to slash the size of Toronto city council. So it was full steam ahead with a city election under a system of 25 wards instead of 47.
Or was it? As nice it would be to have the whole mess settled, there could still be all sorts of twists in the crazy, confusing saga that began when Mr. Ford dropped his barrel bomb on Toronto politics this summer.
What if someone launched and won an appeal of the stay, switching the election back to 47 wards? Does the city change the election framework once again? Would an election with rules set that late even be legal?
What if the province loses its appeal of the original judge’s decision and the ruling comes down after the Oct. 22 election? Does that mean the election was invalid? What happens then? Does the city have to hold a whole new vote? Does the government go ahead after all with its threat to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to ram the 25-ward set-up through?
Even if, as seems likely, the stay holds and the government prevails in the courts, Mr. Ford’s rash, rushed move to change Toronto’s electoral map when the election campaign was already well under way caused a big muddle in Canada’s biggest city. As Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner put it, the tumult of the past few weeks has put a “cloud of illegitimacy” over the election. Ordinary voters still don’t know for certain which ward they are in or who their candidates for city councillor will be. The election campaign itself has been entirely overshadowed by the Ford intervention − bad news for a growing city with big challenges.
The Ford government insists it is all worthwhile. Toronto needs to get a lot done and a streamlined city council will hop to it. It’s a good applause line, but where is the evidence? How do we know that 25 councillors will be more efficient than 47?
The substance of the government’s argument has been all but overlooked amid the fuss about how Mr. Ford carried out his change: dropping it out of the blue on an unsuspecting city government, failing to mention it during his election campaign or the government’s Throne Speech, threatening to push the big red button, the notwithstanding clause, to get it through. That substance is extraordinarily thin.
Mr. Ford simply says over and over that Toronto council is dysfunctional. It gets nothing at all done. Mass transit goes unbuilt. The roads and bridges rot. City council spends hour after hour debating things such as whether to ban shark-fin soup.
This is a gross caricature of what really happens down at city hall. The debates can often be ridiculous and drawn out. Council sometimes makes dumb decisions and sometimes fails to make any decision at all. As a newcomer to Queen’s Park, Mr. Ford will soon realize that things get pretty silly there, too. But most of the time, council does its job, holds the votes and passes the measures that move the city forward. Toronto mayors usually get most of their program through. Big, necessary projects go ahead. Even now the city is spending hundreds of millions to upgrade its storm-sewer and flood-control systems, an investment debated and approved by council.
If the city has been slow to construct housing and build out its transit system, the blame is shared by all three levels of government. It was a previous Progressive Conservative premier, Mike Harris, who decided to cancel a major subway project that was already under way and fill in a hole that had already been dug. And it was under mayor Rob Ford − with his brother Doug at his side − that debates at city council were at their wildest. So Ford’s move to slash council was not just precipitous, it was unnecessary. There is no proof that it will make any difference to the efficiency of government in Toronto. Wednesday’s appeal-court ruling doesn’t change that fact, no matter how hard Mr. Ford’s Tories clap and cheer.