If you squinted a little, the first month of Ontario’s new government looked reasonably normal.
Sure, Doug Ford’s enthusiasm for rapidly legislating changes that cut people off at the knees and seemed to invite legal action – ending a cap-and-trade program in which businesses had sunk billions, cancelling a wind-energy development near completion – was a bit unusual. But delivering on campaign promises, he was still roughly within the realm of how premiers usually behave.
So much for that. With Friday’s announcement that he intends to dramatically change some of the province’s municipal elections already under way and outright cancel others, Mr. Ford demonstrated that unwritten rules for how premiers are supposed to act do not apply.
When Official Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath described the out-of-the-blue move as “chilling,” she wasn’t exaggerating. Mr. Ford has sent a signal that he is what critics cautioned as he campaigned for Ontario’s top job this year: a chaos agent who will treat Canada’s second-largest government as a plaything for impulsive score-settling and whatever else pops into his head.
One needn’t necessarily get worked up about the substance of what Mr. Ford is proposing. It’s not outlandish to believe that shrinking the number of Toronto city councillors to 25 from 47 will make municipal government more effective, as he says. As for the Peel, York, Muskoka and Niagara regions where he intends to scrap elections of regional chairs – well, they managed to survive with those chairs chosen by other municipal politicians, before Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government gave voters that decision starting in 2018.
But if not the what, it’s the how that should alarm Ontarians.
Even many Progressive Conservatives privately acknowledge that pulling the rug out from under hundreds of municipal candidates three months into the official campaign period, and mere hours before what was supposed to be the deadline to register to run, is bizarre.
The abruptness is at least part of the reason − alongside worries about distracting from policies the Tories actually campaigned on, and about damaging the PC brand in Toronto the way Mike Harris’s forced municipal amalgamation in the 1990s did – that some members of Mr. Ford’s staff initially tried to shoot down this course of action. (Until this week, they thought they had succeeded.)
On a human level, Mr. Ford is being callous. People raised and spent money, quit jobs and made other major life decisions to seek office. Now they’re being punished for failing to anticipate elected positions being eliminated mid-contest.
From an efficiency perspective, the $25-million over four years that Mr. Ford claims will be saved by shrinking Toronto’s council – minuscule relative to overall spending – could be eaten up by administrative costs as the city scrambles to prepare for October’s election, and legal ones as aggrieved candidates and activists attempt court actions.
But the most disconcerting part is what it says about how Mr. Ford approaches the enormous power that comes with majority government.
A premier’s treatment of lower levels of government can be a good test of how he or she handles that responsibility. Municipalities exist here as creatures of provinces, which set their powers, but most premiers don’t trample them without a moment’s notice. Even Mr. Harris’s amalgamations involved some public debate, and time for local elected officials to adjust.
Generally speaking, messing with rules or boundaries of elections under way – let alone stopping them outright – crosses a line most politicians know to avoid. Conservatives applauding Mr. Ford now, enjoying left-of-centre Torontonians' protests, should ask themselves how they would feel if Ms. Wynne had torn up election maps in the middle of the past municipal campaigns, or if Justin Trudeau’s Liberals somehow managed to change riding boundaries once next year’s federal campaign was under way.
What was so urgent about Mr. Ford’s changes that they couldn’t wait until the next municipal votes in 2022 to be fairly implemented? The generous explanation is that he’s really eager to act on his impression from his single term on Toronto council that too many elected politicians are bad for government. A less charitable one is that he’s being vindictive toward old foes, thwarting former PC leader Patrick Brown’s plan to run for Peel regional chair and messing with John Tory, who bested Mr. Ford in Toronto’s past mayoral race.
Ultimately, Mr. Ford’s precise motives don’t matter as much as his apparent belief that he’s free of restraints premiers usually self-impose.
So long as he’s imposing his will over people easily demonized, like municipal politicians in a city that mostly didn’t vote for his party, conflict is good. The weight that comes with his office is lighter if the only question he asks himself, after determining something that appeals to his instincts is within his power, is whether most of his supporters will like it.
Now, some of Mr. Ford’s moves in that first month – his willingness to create uncertainty in the province’s business climate, for instance, by legislating ends to contracts – look more like emboldening buildup. If his party and supporters rally around him after Friday, he may grow bolder still about breaking the unwritten rules.
That kind of chaos could grow wearying after a while. But in a political culture in which it’s increasingly possible for politicians like Mr. Ford to exploit cynicism around public institutions and other members of the political class, it could also become the new normal in a hurry − no squinting required.