Monday was a bleak day for Ontario. Virtually everyone implicated in the showdown over Bill 5, the province’s attempt to shrink Toronto City Council in the midst of a municipal election, emerged worse off: the judiciary, the Progressive Conservative government, candidates for city office and, above all, the people of Toronto.
A bad day got off to a bad start with the ruling of Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba, who struck down Bill 5 with a flourish, wielding snark and a novel interpretation of the Charter.
His decision damned the bill for violating the freedom of expression of candidates and voters: the former because they had to scramble to have their message heard after the ward boundaries were changed, and the latter because they would have their voices diluted by bigger constituencies.
Neither argument is sound. Freedom of expression isn’t the issue with Bill 5. Candidates can still say whatever they want and voters can still vote. The law is bad, but not all bad laws are unconstitutional.
In view of the suspect ruling, the province was right to announce an appeal on Monday, and it still stands a good chance of being vindicated in the courts. Ontario’s PC government could have, and should have, left it at that, confident in their wide latitude to meddle with municipal democracy.
Unfortunately, the government is led by Doug Ford – as impetuous and demagogic a politician as we have in Canada. So instead of trusting in the judicial process, the Premier announced on Monday that he will reintroduce his bill and invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to insulate it from the Superior Court decision.
In doing so, he is resorting to an extreme measure that has never been used in Ontario and should never be used to ram through a contentious partisan measure.
Even worse is the contempt for the judiciary he showed in attacking “appointed” judges. We live in a democracy but we also have a Constitution, and judges are empowered to strike down laws that violate it.
It’s fine for politicians to appeal those decisions, but not for a Premier to depict an adverse ruling as some kind of putsch from the bench.
In doing so, Mr. Ford ensured not only that Toronto’s impending elections, just six weeks away, will be a mess – he also put democracy in Ontario on a dangerous path.
The Premier should drop his challenge and let the election carry on unimpeded. It is the only reasonable and democratic course left at this point.