Doug Ford has built his political career on slogans.
“Stop the gravy train,” a lament about trivial council perks such as passes to the zoo, brought him and his brother to power at Toronto’s city hall in 2010.
During the recent provincial campaign, he ran on the populist pablum “For the People” (which cast his opponents, presumably, as the tribunes of home appliances, or maybe flora and fauna).
In his latest battle – his undemocratic plan to unilaterally shrink Toronto’s city council – he has again resorted to one-liners. This time there’s a little variation in the delivery, but his pitch has been essentially one-note: that opponents of his plan want “more politicians.”
“More politicians are not the answer,” he said on Twitter. "We don’t believe in more politicians,” he told the provincial legislature.
Good salesman that he is, Mr. Ford has crafted another slogan that sounds plausible at first blush. After all, politicians are an easy target.
But the Premier’s argument is wrong and pernicious.
Take the basic premise that Toronto is ridden with politicians. It’s false. The city, with its 44 councillors and single mayor, has proportionally fewer elected municipal officials than almost any other big urban area in Canada. Places such as Montreal and Halifax have about twice as many.
Even if Toronto were overrun with councillors, it would have little bearing on the inefficiency of city hall. The federal Parliament has 338 members and gets plenty done. That’s largely thanks to the party system, which allows leaders to whip votes. If Toronto city hall seems less disciplined in comparison, it has far more to do with the fact that each councillor is a free agent than with their sheer number.
But we can’t blame city hall’s alleged inefficiencies on the grandstanding and filibustering of its 44 councillors, either. Council’s regular sessions only happen once a month. The length of these meetings and the cubic feet of hot air they produce – while sometimes prodigious – are not the problem.
And Toronto councillors do more than voting and speechifying. Unlike politicians at other levels of government, constituency work is at the heart of any city councillors’ work. They handle noise complaints, applications for speed bumps and the like, funneling them toward the right bureaucrats when they can’t resolve the problems themselves. Mr. Ford’s brother, Rob, mastered that style of customer-service politics when he was on council.
Under Mr. Ford’s plan – 25 councillors for 2.8-million residents – municipal politicians would each represent an average of more than 100,000 people. That’s more than councillors in any other Canadian city are asked to handle, and too many to allow them to be effective representatives.
Passing the work onto staff is no compensation. Staffers and bureaucrats don’t have the incentive to be helpful that an elected official has, because they don’t have to face constituents at the ballot box.
That’s why democracy is efficient in its way. Public opinion lights a fire under decision-makers. It makes them eager to please, and accountable when they fail.
That gets to the biggest problem with Mr. Ford’s “fewer politicians” crusade. Erasing council spots does virtually nothing to shrink the size of government. Instead, it increases the power of bureaucrats. That’s who will pick up the slack left by departed councillors. When politicians are stretched thin, made to sit on twice as many committees and field twice as many constituent calls, they will defer to unelected officials.
Yes, some councillors are hollow shirts and time-servers. (For evidence, look no further than Premier Ford’s dismal term as councillor for Etobicoke North.) But that will also be true if their ranks are thinned to 25. And even a lazy incumbent pays more deference to the needs of her constituents than a bright young mandarin would.
The city probably won’t be run any better, may be run worse and will for sure be run less democratically in Mr. Ford’s scheme. In any case, it will need just as much running. Only now, more of the people doing the running will sit in dusty city hall offices and never face a vote.
Empowering bureaucrats and isolating frustrated citizens is an odd legacy for a purported enemy of big government and advocate “for the people.” But then, sometimes funny things happen when you govern by slogan.