Like a mechanized sledgehammer hitting a finishing nail, Premier Doug Ford returned to Toronto municipal politics last Friday in a way that no one expected: changing the rules of the election four hours before the close of nominations.
Ford quite suddenly announced that the election of four new regional chairs this fall was cancelled, and that Toronto City Council was going to be downsized from 47 seats to 25. In his own “bull in a china shop” way, I think Ford brought to the fore an issue that should definitely be up for debate in this municipal election: the power dynamics between the province and its municipal governments.
For the record, there is no doubt that the provincial government has the right and authority to change how Ontario cities are governed, including the composition of those governments, and how those governments are elected.
But to borrow a movie quote, Doug Ford was so preoccupied with whether or not he could that he didn't stop to think if he should.
There are numerous problems with the why and how Ford did this, but none of them have to do with the right, or the argument that we should be willing to consider that there are better ways for local government to work.
For instance, if this were so important to Ford – the re-organization of municipal government – then it should have been an election issue. If the need was so immediate that Ford wanted to hold a special summer session of the legislature to debate a bill in the midst of a municipal election in progress, he should have talked about it on the campaign trail.
I know the news moves pretty fast these days, but that was less than two months ago.
Also, consider who was targeted. Toronto, which is only one of 444 municipalities in Ontario, and the regional chairs of York, Peel, Niagara and Muskoka.
Ford’s argument on the regional chair job was that “folks” didn’t need another layer of government, but what about the current regional chairs in Waterloo, Halton and Durham. If the point is to reconsider regional government, why not do it holistically?
It’s hard to ignore the fact that former PC leader Patrick Brown was running for Peel Region chair, and that former Liberal cabinet minister Steven Del Duca was running for York Region chair. Both were likely to win their respective races, and rumour has it that Ford was looking for someone to stand against his predecessor as provincial Tory leader.
Don’t worry about Brown though, he’s running for Brampton’s mayor for some reason.
Meanwhile, in considering the changes to Toronto council, one can’t help but remember that Ford lost the mayoral race in 2014 to John Tory, and before Brown’s ouster, Ford was game for a re-match.
At his remarks last Friday, Ford said that reducing the number of councillors by nearly half will “dramatically improve the decision-making process," which is a curious comment coming from someone that missed 30 per cent of the votes during their one and only term on council.
In 2014, Ford actually missed 53 per cent of the votes.
One would think that that someone concerned about the “waste and mismanagement in government” would show up for every vote. One would think that if creating efficiency in council was such a priority, then Ford wouldn’t have thrown in the towel after one term. Until his brother’s illness, Doug Ford was quite content to leave the governing business to his younger brother.
So where’s the fire? Where’s the consideration?
Keep in mind that this is the same Premier that wants to do the “largest consultation ever in Ontario’s history” for the sex ed curriculum. Why must Doug Ford talk to everyone in the province, seemingly, before he decides its okay if a six-year-old knows that a penis is called a “penis”, but changing the government of Ontario’s largest city is just another one of those things you announce on a Friday morning?
Having said all of that, the government, and how it’s presently structured, isn’t sacrosanct. The Municipal Act, or the City of Toronto Act for that matter, did not come down from the mountain etched on stone tablets by God himself.
Even Guelph councillors, I think, would not mind the opportunity to explore if the current way our cities are governed is the best way.
In our city, we’ve got 12 part-time councillors, and then the council of the County of Wellington each controlling certain segments of our daily needs. And on top of that, there’s provincial oversight on some sectors, federal jurisdiction over others.
Ford could be correct, we might have too much government, and something more streamlined might provide welcome and practical reform, but how can we trust that the Premier has practical needs in mind when his announcement so clearly targets his political adversaries?
It’s worth noting too that this comes from the man who thought a monorail and 1.6-million-square-foot “megamall” was exactly what the Toronto waterfront needed, but no, I’m sure this wonkish stuff is where Ford really shines.