Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Democratic rights in Canada at stake in court fight against Ford's attack on local Toronto elections...

Dictator Ford (photographed by Justin Tang of the Cdn Press)
I'll give Doug Ford one thing: like his late brother, he is an expert on swindling the public with his oft-repeated messaging.  Like Trump in the U.S., it doesn't seem to matter if those talking points bear no resemblance to reality; as long as he keeps repeating them, his uncritical and gullible political base tends to believe them. 

Ford has been pushing one such simplistic message lately that his heavy-handed slashing of Toronto City Council seats from 47 to 25 is about shrinking government and saving "millions."

This reminds me of one of the most poisonous legacies of former PC Premier Mike Harris, who forced an amalgamation on the former six cities of Toronto, North York, York, Etobicoke, East York and Scarborough, along with their regional government, into one giant megacity in 1996.  It was ostensibly done to save money and reduce duplication.  Instead, 20 years later, the overall costs of government in Toronto have gone substantially up.  The same is true in the hundreds of other municipalities that were forced to merge in the 1990s, as a 2015 report from the conservative-minded Fraser Institute revealed.

“There were huge increases in costs — it really wasn’t well thought out,” said co-author Lydia Miljan, a University of Windsor political scientist.

“If the government of the day was truly interested in finding efficiencies at the local level, it might have been better off to pursue policies such as shared service agreements rather than municipal restructuring,” said Miljan.

Who would've thought that a simplistic plan based solely on the ideological assumption that less politicians means less spending would've actually produced the opposite?   Um, every intelligent, progressive critic at the time the conservative government chose to ignore.

And now in 2018 it's happening again.

Ford's change this year in Toronto will also prove more expensive for taxpayers as it will reduce by half the numbers of elected people scrutinizing the megacity's budget, thus freeing up bureaucrats, as well as the police and other municipal agencies from having to face tough questions from political leaders with the time and resources to keep an eye on them.  The $25 million Ford claims his cut will save over four years is already partially wasted due to the multiple millions that changing the 2018 election halfway through has cost, let alone the ongoing court battle to defend it.

If the council cut does proceed, it will also mean that citizens are even more removed from their local government and will have to struggle to get the ear of their local councillors, now representing over 100,000 people each.

To many non-Canadians, this turn of events is shocking as most can't believe that a provincial government could do such a thing to a local government.  It doesn't happen like this in other parts of the civilized world where most major cities do have some constitutional standing, not to mention due process.  However, as we know in Canada, municipalities were originally conceived as mere "creatures" of the provinces.  The provinces received full constitutional control over municipalities at the time of Confederation in 1867.

But still the desire to fight back against a hostile provincial government that seems to enjoy picking on Toronto is palpable.

When Toronto mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat launched her campaign the day after Ford's plan to cut council was announced, she tweeted the simple word, "Secession."  That defiance struck a chord with me.  She has since clarified that comment, saying she was merely trying to express the frustration many Torontonians were feeling after learning their local affairs were again going to be undermined by a numbskull conservative government that just wanted to wreak havoc to settle political scores. 

Keesmaat's instincts to stand up and forcefully defend Toronto's interests in the face of the tinpot dictator at Queen's Park has earned her my vote.  She's certainly better than incumbent John Tory in that regard, whose wishy washy platitudes are getting us nowhere.  (I'll have much more to write about that race later.)

I agree that Toronto seceding from Ontario isn't necessarily the answer we need right now.  Instead, the answer we need is much stronger powers for Toronto and other municipalities across Canada.  Those powers ought to be recognized in the Constitution so that they can't be stripped away by a reckless and thoughtless premier on a whim. 

I can't agree more with this column by Shawn Micallef that was published last week.  As he writes:

"While provincial sovereignty was paramount at Confederation...democracy has become the organizing principle of constitutional interpretation and that local democracy and municipalities have evolved to become incredibly important institutions.

"This is what makes the court challenge Toronto city council agreed to undertake...so interesting, as the Constitution is...a living document and interpretation of it evolves."

I have to hope so.

In 2018, the election race in Toronto's 47 council wards was already well underway by the time Ford announced his plans to interfere in late July.   Local candidates had spent weeks campaigning in wards that had been designed through a careful and thoughtful local process, which included massive consultations with citizens.  Those candidates had raised money, and local citizens had donated that time and money to participate in our democracy.   Now all of that has been thrown in the dustbin.

Democratic rights ought to be protected in Canadian law.  The ability of citizens to take part in that democracy should not be undermined by a reckless government rushing through changes to the rules halfway through the game and without consultation. 

If the judge rules after this Friday's hearing that Ford's actions are justified and the 25-ward election can proceed, it will mean that our democratic rights as Canadians are weak in the face of government power, that those democratic rights can be manipulated and undermined at will, without notice or consultation, simply to please the petty grudges of leaders who won a plurality of votes in a first-past-the-post provincial election.

I truly hope the judge does the right thing here and puts a much-needed check on the bullish and terrible instincts of Dictator Ford.  Otherwise, Toronto won't be the last city to have its local elections turned upside down for no good reason.