Saturday, July 28, 2018

That Ford's attack on Toronto is dangerous does not mean the status quo is healthy or democratic

It is pretty easy to show that Doug Ford's undemocratic attack on the city of Toronto has nothing at all to do with the council being somehow bloated and has everything to do with the vindictive settling of scores by a petty man.

Doug Ford never understood or liked Toronto outside of his frame of reference in his part of Etobicoke and the city rejected him in favour of a more stable conservative in John Tory. During his brother's years as mayor the council also prevented Rob Ford from implementing some aspects of his destructive agenda and ultimately stripped him of many of his powers.

A number of people have pointed to the lack of representation that residents of Toronto will now have versus other communities in the province and a quick table I made below shows that this will become very pronounced should the change go ahead.

Sault Ste Marie: 1 Councillor per 6,114 residents
Peterborough: 1 Councillor per 8,177 residents 
Niagara Falls: 1 Councillor per 11,008 residents
St. Catharines: 1 Councillor per 11,092 residents
Thunder Bay: 1 Councillor per 12,162 residents
Sudbury: 1 Councillor per 13,461 residents 
Whitby: 1 Councillor per 16,293 residents
London: 1 Councillor per 27,416 residents
Hamilton: 1 Councillor per 35,794 residents
Ottawa: 1 Councillor per 40,620 residents

Toronto AFTER Doug Ford's attack: 
from 1 Councillor per 58,119 to one per 109,263 residents

This is personal. It is not about anything else.

The changes Ford wants to bring in, as others have again pointed out, are also totally outrageous given that they are happening during an ongoing election, with absolutely no public consultation and having just come out of a provincial contest where he did not raise the idea even once.

But, as awful as Ford's destructive agenda is, the problem for his opponents is that there really are some very deep issues with municipal democracy in Toronto. These issues alienate many from their council and councillors and I suspect that Ford's line about Toronto's government as "dysfunctional" will resonate because it is not entirely false.

Toronto wards are like fiefdoms and the power of incumbency in the city is such that getting elected to one is akin to inheriting a feudal duchy. The narrow political visions this promotes lend themselves to NIMBYism, nepotism and cliques of city power brokers. These issues effect the city's political class across the board on the both its right and its often sad, milquetoast "left".

It is remarkable how profoundly ineffectual the council has been on issues of fundamental importance to Toronto residents from transit to housing to infrastructure. To not recognize this is to fuel resentment and detachment from civic government.

It is also pointless to try to claim these problems are due specifically to the individual councillors involved. They are clearly more systemic than that.

Ford's slashing of the council's size will not remedy this at all, of course. The power of incumbency will likely be increased by having larger wards as incumbents will be harder to challenge financially and tactically. There is no reason to think doubling the geographic and population size of the wards will make their representatives any less prone to NIMBYism or make the council any less dysfunctional.

Still, simplistic narratives resonate when only one side in a debate are willing to acknowledge that a real problem actually exists.

While the left should do what it can in Toronto against this attack on the city it should also be fighting for other reforms to make Toronto more democratic and its government more responsive to the residents of the city as a whole.

Three ideas, among several, we could be looking at are:

Ranked Ballots 

Ranked ballots were actually supposed to happen for this election, though predictably the idea was dropped in the end. While ranked ballots do not necessarily work against incumbents what they do do is hurt the city's power brokers and cliques as well as undermining nepotism.

They do this by allowing people to vote with their hearts by ranking the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets 50% of the vote based on first choices, second and then third choices, etc., are counted until someone does.

When people can vote with their hearts candidates can no longer make the ultimately ugly and disempowering claim that they are the only "realistic" alternative to either an incumbent or challenger.

This one step would promote a much greater diversity of voices and candidates coming forward and being taken seriously as it would no longer be possible to paint voting for any candidate as somehow "wasting" your vote.

City Wide Lists

While I agree that slashing the size of city council -- especially in such a reckless way -- is a mistake, that does not mean continuing with the narrow focus ward system exclusively is necessarily a good idea.

A very strong case can be made that municipal democracy would be greatly enhanced with the addition of a certain number of city wide councillors elected from a general list to either compliment or equal a number, possibly reduced, of neighbourhood based wards.

City wide councillors would not be anywhere near as likely to be beholden to the NIMBYist narratives or local power brokers of specific neighbourhoods as ward based politicians are, and this would help in creating policy that is aimed at benefiting residents across Toronto as a whole.

Term Limits

Term limits would be so obviously beneficial in ending the absurdity of councillors who hang around election after election after election that it is abundantly clear why those with power don't want to talk about them.

No single change to Toronto's municipal government would do more to make City Council more democratic, diverse, open to new ideas and visions, and less driven by a desire to get reelected for life, than would term limits.

It is for this very reason that we do not have them.

Leftists in Toronto absolutely need to mobilize to stop Ford's dangerous assault on Toronto's democracy. But we should not stop there. There is a reason that Ford's message will resonate with more city residents than some would care to believe. While even many progressive city politicians have a vested interest in stating otherwise, Toronto's municipal democracy is not terribly healthy, dynamic or diverse.

Whether we succeed in stopping this specific attack or not, we should acknowledge that change is needed and that we should be discussing what this could look like and working towards it as opposed to simply defending a deeply flawed status quo.

See also: Chaos Theory: For Doug Ford disruption will be the plan

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