I am sorry to report that last week barbarians sacked my city. Democracy as we know it lies in ruins. It says so in all the papers and on the CBC. The chief of the barbarians is Doug Ford, Ontario’s new Premier. Last week he decided – without consultation! – to cut the number of Toronto city council seats nearly in half, an act that has plunged the pundit classes into despair. One city councillor labelled it a “betrayal of our democracy."
Not every citizen is enraged, however. To be honest, I doubt that one in a thousand Torontonians knows how many council seats there are, or whether this number is too many, too few or just right. What I do know is that Canada’s largest municipal government is unwieldy and dysfunctional – a talking shop for windbags where it’s extremely hard to get stuff done. Even insiders say so.
That’s the view of Michael Thompson, the long-time city councillor for Scarborough Centre. He’s with Doug Ford on this one. “It’s hard to get us to make decisions,” he told me. “The business of council could be done in a more timely, efficient manner if we had fewer people talking about the same things over and over.”
Toronto’s government has no party system. That means that each councillor is effectively a party of one – motivated to speak (at length) on every issue to show that she is serving her constituency, whether or not she has anything to say. “Everyone comes with a different tactical view,” Mr. Thompson says. “Every one of us can come up with a new subway plan and every one of them has to be discussed. We can’t form a collective view.”
The gridlock over public transit is the biggest victim of council’s inefficiency. But countless lesser matters – the casino debate, the garbage debate, the debate over King Street – get bogged down in endless process. Endless reports are commissioned that are never read. Councillors use their positions to stall and bargain for concessions on other issues. Mr. Thompson is convinced that fewer councillors would improve democracy, not diminish it. Doug Ford’s plan is to reduce them to 25 – close to the number of Toronto MPs in Ottawa and MPPs at Queen’s Park – and to adopt the same geographic boundary lines.
Even those bitterly opposed to Mr. Ford’s attack on democracy mutter quietly that streamlining city council might not be such a bad idea. The problem they have is that he did the right thing in the wrong way. He did not consult. He did not ask permission. He just did it. Without asking anybody. And now he has inconvenienced the bureaucrats because Toronto’s municipal election is only two months away and they will have to scramble to redraw the boundaries and make it work in time. He has inconvenienced a handful of would-be politicians who were getting ready to run. And he has infuriated Toronto’s Mayor, John Tory (a former rival, who beat him in the last election), who has instructed the city’s lawyers to explore ways to block Mr. Ford’s plan by every means available. This is posturing, as Mr. Tory surely knows. Legally, the city is the creature of the province and the province holds all the cards – just as it did in 1998,when then-premier Mike Harris pushed through amalgamation in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.
Mr. Harris was a populist. He cared about results, not process. And people screamed bloody murder. And the louder they screamed the more popular he got. Like Mr. Harris, Mr. Ford believes that the people of Ontario are over-governed and overtaxed. And he’s right. His fundamental view about politicians is that too often they get in the way of getting things done. Therefore, the fewer the better. “The people of Toronto have watched city council go around, and around, and around in circles,” he said the other day as he announced the cuts.
Cutting city council will not, on its own, fix what ails Toronto’s government. But it is an encouraging sign of things to come. Ontario’s bureaucracy has metastasized beyond control. My colleague André Picard discovered that the number of health-related civil servants in Ontario has bulked up from 6,000 to 13,000, while an alphabet soup of agencies – LHINs, CCACs and the like – gobble up tax dollars and blur accountability. It all needs drastic downsizing. No doubt the people who manage and work in these bureaucracies will yell and scream. But democracy will be the winner.