I think Doug Ford has done us all a favour. I think we owe him a debt of gratitude.
Canadian democracy has been in such an advanced state of decline for so long that it no longer seems as if anyone even notices. Parliament barely meets any more. The government passes half its agenda in a single omnibus bill, with scant hours for what passes for debate. MPs are programmed voting machines. Even cabinet ministers have been reduced to running errands for the Prime Minister – or rather, for the Prime Minister’s staff.
Unsurprisingly, people no longer bother to participate or pay much attention. Turnout is down to roughly 60 per cent in federal elections; to 43 per cent in the last Ontario election; and in Toronto’s recent municipal election, to a remarkable 29 per cent of eligible voters, the lowest in the city’s history.
So Mr. Ford’s decision to put a bullet into the old nag is a welcome nod to reality. We have been carrying on with the pretense that we are a democracy for some time. Now the Premier of Ontario is no longer going to pretend.
In a surprise announcement last week – for what is autocracy without surprises? – the province unveiled legislation allowing the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to move and pass bylaws with the support of just a third of the members of their respective city councils. In the case of Toronto, whose city council Mr. Ford had earlier slashed in half, from 47 members to 25, that means the mayor, who also sits on council, would have to round up votes from just eight members.
The government advertises this as a “strong mayor” policy, though it only applies in two cities and only to bylaws deemed in line with “provincial priorities.” It follows legislation passed in September that gave mayors the power to veto bylaws passed by council, unless two-thirds of council voted to override. But where the earlier legislation allowed a minority of council to block a bylaw, it at least required a majority to pass one. Now it will only take a third.
This has provoked some understandable splutterings of outrage and incomprehension. What is the point of even having a council, said more than one commentator, if the mayor and a few of his pals can govern without the rest? It is a foundational principle of democracy, they thundered, that the majority rules. And of course they are right. That is very nearly the definition of it.
Rule by the people, if it means anything, means rule by a majority of the people. If it does not – if a minority can overrule the majority – then it violates another foundational principle of democracy: that everyone gets a vote, and every vote counts equally. The principle of majority rule is a direct corollary of the principle of equality.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, however, but that is not the principle by which we are in fact ruled – at any level of government. Rather, we are governed under a system that, in most elections, results in rule by the minority. It’s called first past the post: as a plurality of the vote, rather than a majority, is sufficient to win in a given riding, so a plurality, rather than a majority of the vote, is commonly sufficient to elect a majority of the members of Parliament or a provincial legislature.
It’s not a system of majority rule. It’s a system of institutionalized minority rule. A government elected with the support of 40 per cent or less of the electorate is nevertheless empowered to pass legislation, over the objections of nearly two-thirds of the voters and the representatives they elected. It wasn’t always thus, of course. At the time our system came into being, there were only two parties of any standing. To win a majority of the seats then, you had to win a majority of the vote. But we haven’t had two-party politics for more than 100 years.
The reason we still think of ours as a system of majority rule is because we have preserved the formality that, in any vote of the House, the support of a majority of MPs is required for it to pass. But there is no particular reason why we should insist on this, on its own. Whether or not you have the support of a majority of a random group of people sitting in a room, after all, is of little consequence. What makes it consequential is who those people represent. It is the illusory idea – once universally true, now almost always false – that the majority of MPs also represent a majority of the people that gives it power.
And yet, whenever this is pointed out, it tends to get waved away impatiently, as if it were a mere bit of arithmetic – as if majority rule were a sort of minor technicality, of a kind only pedants would fuss about. That’s the strength of our system, we are told: It produces stable majority governments! Yes, they are artifacts of a broken electoral system, manufactured out of a minority of the popular vote. What of it?
So I say again: Mr. Ford has done us a favour. I have often suggested, as a thought experiment, that we imagine what the reaction would be if it were proposed that legislation should pass with the support of 35 per cent of MPs, rather than, as at present, MPs with the support of 35 per cent of the public. Surely that would demonstrate how indefensible the present system is. Surely that would make the case that we need a system based on genuine majority rule, rather than the illusion of it.
Now Mr. Ford has proposed that we do precisely that. He has made explicit what was always implicit. He has exposed the logic of first past the post. He has openly endorsed minority rule, where lesser men hide behind the façade of a parliamentary majority.