When Doug Ford became premier of Ontario in 2018, he told voters that his Progressive Conservative government would be “Ontario’s first ever Government for the People.”
Most people saw that random assertion as garden-variety political gas; a meaningless slogan from an inexperienced populist who had lucked into his party’s leadership at the last moment. What no one could foresee at the time was how truly vacuous it would turn out to be.
Friends, Mr. Ford was having you on. Last week, his recently re-elected government tabled a bill that, if adopted, will sacrifice a fundamental tenet of democracy – majority rule – on the altar of his political agenda.
Under the so-called Better Municipal Governance Act, the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa will be able to adopt or amend bylaws with just one-third of the vote on their councils.
The lone caveat is that those bylaws must relate in a still undefined way to priorities that the Ford government will name at a later date, but which “could include building 1.5 million new homes in 10 years to address the housing supply crisis, and the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, such as transit and roads, to support new and existing housing development.”
There are so many ways this is wrong. Let’s start with the fact that it’s utterly unnecessary.
Municipalities are creatures of provincial governments, a reality that Mr. Ford delighted in shoving in the face of Toronto residents when he arbitrarily halved the size of the city’s council in the middle of the 2018 municipal election.
He did it again this year when his government enacted the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act. Among other things, that law gives the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa the power to veto bylaws and override council decisions, again in the name of provincial priorities. Councils would have been able to overturn a mayoral veto with a two-thirds supermajority vote. Now even that modest check on the mayors’ new powers has disappeared.
But if Mr. Ford wanted to, or had the courage, his government could impose all the zoning, transit, road and housing development bylaws it felt like on every municipality in the province.
In fact, its More Homes Built Faster Act will do some of that, once adopted. The bill takes baby steps toward speeding up development and increasing urban and suburban density. But it doesn’t do the hard work of forcing greater density on cities like Toronto in a meaningful way, by opening up areas zoned for detached homes to a wider variety of housing.
Doing so would present political challenges, so rather than use the popular franchise Mr. Ford earned by winning a majority of seats in the Ontario legislature, he intends to pervert the democratic principle that put him in power and let a minority on the Toronto and Ottawa councils do his bidding.
It is almost impossible to believe that this is happening in Canada.
The idea that elected politicians represent voters by adopting laws that are passed with a majority of votes, whether at city councils, provincial legislatures or Parliament in Ottawa, is the heart of democracy.
If legislative minorities can now adopt laws to suit the political agenda of the moment, then democracy has been shot through the heart. Why even have an elected Toronto council, if the Premier is going to turn it into a sullen rubber-stamp operation in a nice building?
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says he won’t use the powers Mr. Ford wants to give him. That’s the right response. But in Toronto, not only has Mayor John Tory said he intends to use them, but he also admits to having suggested the minority-rule option in the first place.
Mr. Tory said last week that he will use his new anti-democratic superpowers in a “limited” fashion, and that voters should trust him.
But it is impossible to trust an elected official who would even entertain perverting democracy in the way the Ford government is proposing. Mr. Tory was elected to defend the interests of Toronto residents. Instead, he is selling them out at his earliest convenience.
Mr. Ford and Mr. Tory are not working for the people. They are working against them, by diminishing the very system that gives them a voice, and downsizing their right to effective representation.