Maybe I’ve been approaching it all wrong. Maybe Bill 39, Better Municipal Governance Act, is the perfect fit for the state of local democracy in Toronto in 2022.
Hear me out here.
The recent municipal election in October witnessed the lowest voter turnout in the city’s history, somewhere just under 30%. With Bill 39, among other strong executive-like powers, the mayor will be able to push his agenda through with the support of just 8 city councillors. That’s 8 of 25 elected councillors or 32% of them.
30%… 32%. Close enough. Roughly a third.
Maybe that’s the amount of democracy Toronto’s owed given the lack of interest voters have shown for it.
That certainly must be the reason a majority of city councillors have so meekly handed over their power to the mayor’s office. Gave it up without so much as a debate. Only a wrist-slap admonishment of a GOB Bluth strongly worded letter to the province while the government was using a late-night session to ram the bill through before the holiday break. Proper procedure must be followed, we’re informed. Next week, they’ll get around to debating it when it’s pretty much a done deal. (Ignore the fact that Ottawa city council including its new mayor unanimously passed a motion last week opposing Bill 39, Mayor Sutcliffe having declared he won’t use the power even if he’s granted it by the province. Another Ottawa City Hall fun fact: Did you know there are almost as many city councillors in Ottawa, a city half the size, as there are in Toronto? They do democracy different in the nation’s capital, don’t they?)
To counter Mayor Tory’s secretive and proactive clutch for an excess of power you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else that freely elects representatives, his city council colleagues have been determined to be purely reactive. Sit on their hands and maintain a wait-and-see approach. Sure, it’s bad, most but his loyal supporters contend, utterly undemocratic. But he’s reasonable and won’t use it except for the most vital of matters like housing. Except that he already has, with the previous less strong but still strong powers bestowed upon him by Doug Ford, to appoint a new city manager without council approval for no other reason than because he could.
What are you going to do?
Nobody’s paying that much attention anyways. It’s the holiday season. And did you see the voter turnout in October? Everybody’s too busy to care about something as arcane as local democracy.
“Doug Ford has been doing whatever seems to suit his goals,” Councillor Paul Ainslie told the Toronto Star in his attempt to explain why he didn’t sign the council letter to the province, “I think he has his perspective on how things should operate and he makes the changes whether some people like them or not.”
He isn’t wrong, although the councillor conveniently fails to mention that Mayor Tory is the co-sponsor of Bill 39.
If Doug Ford, as premier, has shown nothing else, he’s most certainly shown that municipalities are helpless in the face of any and all provincial onslaught. Creatures of the province like a rented mule. No court of law will stop them. The federal government keeps its hands tied.
So, why bother fighting back, as Councillor Ainslie implies? What’s the use? They’re just going to do what they’re going to do regardless. Since everybody hates Toronto anyway, nobody else is going to come to our rescue. We’re on our own. Just roll over, show our belly and hope we get a nice pat rather than a kick in the ribs.
Why bother having a city council at all then? Why did Mayor Tory hamstring his regal viceroy pretensions to 8 city councillors? Anything less than that might look bad? Why not just elect a mayor and let him appoint two or three of his corporate buddies to oversee things? Hell, let’s just pack it up, call it a day and let the province run things from Queen’s Park. We can sell off City Hall to a developer friend of the premier’s.
Is it any wonder nobody shows up to vote? If a majority of our city council members are this listless and deferential to such an overt assault on our democracy, why bother giving them any sheen of authority?
The irony of all this is that after successfully fending off the worst instincts of then Mayor Rob Ford for four years, city council has subsequently been reduced to a rump of compliant clowns and courtiers. Operating at the mercy of the province, they won’t even stand up to an overweening mayor, failing to so much as call him onto the carpet and have him explain his actions and publicly declare why he is so determined to work hand-in-hand with Doug Ford to undermine local democracy. That’s too much effort, it seems. Don’t want to go around upsetting the apple cart like that.
Perhaps residents didn’t come out to vote because few of Toronto’s city councillors deserve our votes.
Now is the time to begin talking about municipal electoral reform and the re-democratization of Toronto. We should be thinking of alternative electoral systems. For example, why not create multi-councillor wards to divide the work, introduce ranked ballots and proportional representation. Yes, it will require a change in the provincial government, but when that happens – and it will happen – we’ll be ready.
We should start by calling for a Citizens’ Assembly on Municipal Electoral Reform. A CA chosen like a jury is selected, given the resources to study the alternatives, to develop a new electoral system and promote its implementation. Why couldn’t the current City Council try to approve such a plan? Is not this how to resist?