Skip to main content

The sensationalism, the spectacle and the talk-show fodder surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford make it a little too easy to laugh at the absurdity of it all. There is much to mock when the leader of Canada's largest city makes Homer Simpson look like Cicero. That is, of course, until you pause for a nanosecond to consider the implications.

In the fallout of the revelation by Chief of Police Bill Blair that the police recovered the infamous video footage of Mr. Ford allegedly smoking what appears to be a crack pipe at the home of a known drug dealer, everything that's wrong with Canadian democracy and political accountability was immediately on display: a political leader who never meets with the media, let alone answers straightforward questions; overt (and exceedingly clumsy) efforts at spin, obfuscation, and suppression; attempts at blaming literally every other institution or political actor – the media, the courts, the police, political opponents – when caught in shady dealings; the non-apology apology; and a public that has seen so much of all of the above that huge swathes of it neither expect nor demand change.

This Sunday, on Rob and Doug Ford's ludicrous radio show, Doug defended his brother at one point by explaining that the mayor is not stealing public money – a statement breathtaking for both its complete irrelevance and its ability to underscore the depths to which our expectations for public accountability have fallen.

The mayor, for his part, demanded that Chief Blair release the video to the public, a demand one might consider forthright, even brave, if only that decision was Mr. Blair's to make (it is not). He also apologized, initially without saying what he was apologizing for, and later, when pressed by a caller, stating he was sorry for occasionally drinking too much – which, granted, is an issue, just not the one that involved a major police investigation that witnessed, among other things, Mr. Ford appearing to receive manila envelopes and plastic bags from an alleged drug dealer.

Any hope that these latest revelations about the mayor might prompt him to resign were swiftly and unsurprisingly dashed. There is no mechanism for removing him from office, short of criminal charges (which police cannot lay due to a lack of evidence). It is this latest fact to which Ford's defenders cling: he has not been charged, and so calls for his resignation are nothing but normal ideological politics.

This is a deeply problematic, even dangerous, line of thinking in a democracy. The standards to which we hold political leaders need to be higher than those we use to decide whether someone should be charged with a criminal offence.

If Rob Ford's questionable approach to his work, his bizarre outbursts at City Council, his refusal to answer questions or speak with the media, or his general approach to politics do not bother Toronto voters, that is fine. Elections are at the heart of democracy and the voters get to choose who sits in office. But there is a point at which we must recognize that democracy cannot be reduced to elections. It includes a host of other principles, including accountability, the rule of law, and acting in the public interest.

Regardless of whether Mr. Ford can be charged with crimes, his apparent association with a criminal element and the behaviour described in the recently released documents relating to the police investigation render him unfit to hold public office. At a minimum, the mayor has serious personal problems that need addressing.

The fact that short of Mr. Ford deciding to resign there is no way to remove him from office is itself a problem. In a parliamentary democracy, the prime minister or provincial premiers can be removed by the legislature (or even by their own caucus). The structure of municipal governments in Canada is different. There are no political parties. The mayor, unlike the prime minister or premier, is elected directly. As such, not even City Council can compel the mayor to do anything.

It is time for the province to step in. From a constitutional perspective, municipalities remain "creatures of the provinces" – and so it falls to the province to establish laws that ultimately govern them.

It is major failing that there are no mechanisms for impeachment in the laws governing municipalities in Ontario. A process should be instituted to ensure that a high threshold is set for removing a member of council from office, and it should contain a super-majority requirement, perhaps two-thirds of council. It must certify that a council cannot just remove a mayor on whim or for purely political reasons, that there is a clear justificatory rationale for impeachment.

But a process must exist and it must reflect the fact that there is a substantive content to keeping the public's trust between elections that exhibits a better standard than not being charged with a crime.

If Premier Wynne believes that such a standard exists, then her government must put in place a law that protects it.

Emmett Macfarlane is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. You can follow him on Twitter @EmmMacfarlane