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Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory during a joint press conference inside Queen’s Park in Toronto on June 27.Cole Burston/CP

Wikipedia tells us that “majority rule is a principle that means the decision-making power belongs to the group that has the most members. In politics, majority rule requires the deciding vote to have a majority, that is, more than half the votes.” Pretty simple, really.

That’s why, as the online encyclopedia further explains, “it is the binary decision rule used most often in influential decision-making bodies, including many legislatures of democratic nations.”

Not in Toronto City Council, though. Not any more.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier, Doug Ford, is bringing in legislation that would let the mayor of Toronto (Ottawa, too) get a bylaw through council with only one third of the votes. In other words, he would need just eight of the 25 councillors onside to have his way, at least on measures that line up with the aims of the provincial government.

If, for example, Toronto’s mayor wanted to approve a large housing project around a subway station, but a majority of councillors said the proposal was too big for the neighbourhood, he could ram it through with just those eight.

Imagine how this would look at a future city council meeting. The speaker calls for a vote. The councillors decide, “yes” or “no.” The clerk announces the result. Eight councillors, plus the mayor, in favour; 17 against. The motion carries! Even a visiting school kid watching from the gallery would ask, “wait what?” Why does the losing side get what it wants?

Ontario boosts ‘strong mayor’ powers to fast track housing development in Toronto and Ottawa

The new rules would free mayors from the burden of actually winning a vote – such a bother, really – and let them get ‘er done with the help of a few agreeable allies. If a basic democratic principle goes out the window in the process, that is a price Mr. Ford seems willing to pay. Ontario needs more housing, says his Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, and “bold actions” are needed to clear away the obstacles.

Bold is one way of putting it. Mr. Ford has already given the mayors of Ottawa and Toronto a veto over council decisions that get in the way of provincial objectives. That veto could be overturned only by a two-thirds majority. Though Mr. Ford calls this a “strong mayor” system, what he really seems to want is mayors who will do his bidding.

Toronto’s current mayor, John Tory, has been perfectly willing to go along. He likes the idea of a strong mayor. He likes the new rule that lets him win some votes with just a third of the councillors on board, too. In fact, he asked for it: A spokesperson, Don Peat, said that the aim was to get housing built, “to avoid NIMBYism and to help make sure this new system works as efficiently as possible.”

Efficiency, experience tells us, is always the excuse for undermining democracy. It was Mr. Ford’s stated reason for one of the first things he did after becoming Premier in 2018: cutting the size of Toronto City Council nearly in half. When a judge got in the way, he threatened to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to push the legislation through – not the last time he would reach for the nuclear option, as we now know.

Ontario has come to expect this sort of thing from Mr. Ford, who tends to reach for the blunderbuss when someone gets in his way. More alarming is Mr. Tory’s meek reaction to the Premier’s meddling. He seems entirely untroubled by the implications of giving a mayor the power to overrule a majority of the elected representatives at city hall.

Don’t worry, Mr. Tory told the press this week. I won’t use my new powers much. That, of course, is what many of our leaders said about the notwithstanding clause after it was slipped into the Constitution late one night four decades ago. The temptation to use special powers like this to brush aside your opponents can prove overpowering.

Even if the current Toronto mayor is sincere and intends to use his new powers rarely and responsibly, can we be confident a successor would be so cautious? Would we have wanted a mayor like the Premier’s late brother, Rob Ford, to have been in control of such a legislative bulldozer?

If he had been thinking of the health of local democracy instead of his own convenience, Mr. Tory would have told Mr. Ford: Thanks, but no thanks. That is what the new Mayor of Ottawa, Mark Sutcliffe, has done: He vows never to use his strong-mayor powers.

Instead, Mr. Tory accepted the hammer the Premier offered him, then asked: Could I have another, bigger one please?

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