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Doug Ford’s ‘strong mayor’ system is an anti-democratic power play

New veto powers would strengthen executive power and curb democratic deliberation

Canadian Politics

Doug Ford and John Tory pose for a photo during a charity cricket match in 2014. Photo courtesy Toronto Sun.

“If I ever get to the provincial level of politics, municipal affairs is the first thing I would want to change. I think mayors across the province deserve stronger powers. One person in charge, with veto power.”

This line appears in Ford Nation, a 2016 biography by Doug Ford and his late brother and former Toronto mayor, Rob Ford. Apparently, the media didn’t pick up on the message, which would explain their shock at learning that the Ontario premier is considering legislation that would grant new powers to Toronto’s and Ottawa’s mayors, including a potential veto over city council. The legislation will be tabled after the Ontario legislature returns for a summer sitting, beginning today.

The informal announcement was first mentioned by Toronto Mayor John Tory when he told the media he had discussed with the premier the need to “speed up” decision-making processes at the local level. The exact tools that will be granted to the mayors of Ontario’s two largest cities are still not clear, but explicit veto power has been brought up by Ford, as well as the possibility of augmenting the firing and appointing powers of senior civil servants, such as the city manager, who play a key role in how the city functions and spends its budget.

These moves would further bolster the mayors who already enjoy a great deal of control over their municipal budgets as well as the informal cabinet structures of their respective executive committees. The goals of this restructuring are obvious: the further centralization of power in the mayor’s office, the sidelining of deliberation by councillors, and the general undercutting of basic democratic and participative principles in municipal governing institutions.

A quarter-century of restructuring Toronto’s local democracy

Ford’s interference in democratic decision-making processes at the municipal level harkens back to former Premier Mike Harris’s “Common-Sense” Revolution, which instituted deeply unpopular austerity policies. Harris infamously amalgamated the municipalities of Etobicoke, North York, East York, York, Scarborough and Toronto into the new City of Toronto in 1997, an act that drew staunch criticism and an informal referendum where 76 percent of the six boroughs voted against amalgamation. Harris would go on to cut the total number of councillors from 114 down to 58 (and then to 47 a few years later) with the Fewer Municipal Politicians Act. Then Minister of the Environment Tony Clement expressed his support of the act in Queen’s Park, saying it dealt with the “too large and unwieldy” council that needed to be brought to a “more efficient and manageable level.”

Similar to the way that Ford has used veiled threats and bullying against Toronto city council—both as his brother’s enforcer and as premier—Clement gave council three days to accept the restructuring or the Harris Conservatives would reduce council to just 22 seats. Ultimately council accepted the cuts, paving the way for a further stiffening of the urban-suburban geographical, political, social, and class divides that would animate city politics for the foreseeable future.

Like Harris, Ford has pursued an austerity agenda through a combination of right populist and neoliberal policies. Ford’s 2018 interference in Toronto’s election and in the composition of city council was an extension of these policies. The Better Local Government Act reduced the number of city councillors from 47 to 25 at the onset of the mayoral and council elections in 2018 and was widely condemned by critics. In his aforementioned book, Ford attacked the council system in Toronto, arguing that veto and discretionary power for the mayor was necessary to cut through “dysfunction.” Indeed, his government claimed this would create a streamlined council that would better serve the interests of the people.

It was evident that Ford was settling old scores on behalf of himself and his late brother as well as pursuing Harris’s unfinished plan to remove as many positions from the council as possible to strengthen executive power. The move was so undemocratic that Mayor Tory and council announced they would challenge its constitutionality in court. This resulted in a stunning threat by Ford to invoke the ‘notwithstanding clause’ to overrule the ‘unelected judges’ involved in undermining democracy. As Greg Albo argues, Ford was so keen to prevent the election of ‘lefties’ that he was willing to use constitutional power to limit democratic and judicial oversight.

The irony is that Ford does not blame amalgamation and the myriad representative and governance issues it has created for nearly destroying city council for half-a-decade when he and his brother turned Toronto into an international punchline of dysfunction. Instead, Ford has returned to old scapegoats: “special interests” and “leftists” hoping for a “free ride” on the backs of taxpayers. This is little more than a thinly veiled attack on the most basic idea of deliberation, consultation and debate within liberal democracies.

Why veto power?

Ford’s plan also mimics the centralization of power in the executive, a phenomenon we have witnessed across the West over the last few decades. This has of course been a steadfast feature of Westminster Parliament as it exists in the Canadian context, where non-executive voices (especially progressive ones) are routinely sidelined.

But why Toronto? The answer is complex but can be boiled down to the post-amalgamation efforts of a right-leaning, pan-suburban coalition to extend its influence over the governance of Canada’s largest city. Downtown, while not a leftist paradise, has a long track record of supporting higher levels of spending, more progressive social-provisioning policies, and an electoral relationship with NDP-aligned and other “left” candidates across all levels of government. One of the unstated goals of amalgamation was to weaken the influence of these political forces. Indeed, with the rise of suburban home ownership and a near codified convention around not raising property taxes, the old downtown-centric model would be unfeasible in the post-amalgamation period.

In the words of Conservative MPP Aris Babikian, an outspoken proponent of the Better Local Government Act:

Where is the equal representation for Torontonians? Where is the equal representation for those who call our city suburbs home? This ineffective model has left our city fractured along urban and suburban lines…For far too long, city council has been held hostage to the special interest groups and downtown councillors. In fact, the vast majority of Scarborough councillors support this bill.

Ford’s geographically-oriented right populism pits his largely suburban and rural base against so-called “downtown elites.” In 2018, Ford applauded the 12 “fiscally conservative councillors” representing close to two million people in Toronto’s suburbs who “know what their constituents want, they want smaller government.” In another line from his book Ford echoes this sentiment: “Rob used to say that if everyone in Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York would come together and vote as a block, they wouldn’t be ignored by the downtown elites.”

This is to say nothing of Tory’s self-serving role here. In fact, he has stated that ‘strong mayor’ powers are necessary to “to get more homes built as quickly as possible.” In an interview with the Toronto Star, Tory continued:

There is definitely a need—and I’ve identified this even in talks long before this story came out—we’ve got to speed up the way we get things done at the city hall…The bottom line is we have to get things done, more of them and faster, and that includes getting more affordable housing built. Right now that process is taking too long and that is leaving people without a place to live or without the ability to live in the city because of the cost.

Ultimately, by handing expanded powers to Tory and the mayor of Ottawa, Ford is working to privilege the pan-suburban coalition and the conservative, privatist, and consumerist politics his base subscribes to. This is both a means and an end to achieving smaller government, normalizing the language of efficiency, and centralizing decision-making.

With 18 of Toronto’s 25 council seats belonging to what could be regarded as suburban ridings, and a mayoral seat that has been in right-wing hands for 17 of the 24 years since amalgamation, neoliberal policymaking can be secured through the executive veto power of the mayor or the ability of the more “fiscally conservative” suburban councillors to overrule the veto of a potentially progressive mayor. It is just the next step in a quarter-century Conservative plan to radically reshape Toronto and its political structure.

Ryan Kelpin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University. His area of research pertains to Toronto and Ontario politics, neoliberalization, and de-democratization.


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