When the Ontario provincial government fights city hall, no-one expects the House of Commons to join in. Yet it’s not out of the realm of possibility that all three levels of government could get involved in one testy issue.
This scenario started taking shape last week when Premier Doug Ford announced his plan to cut the number of Toronto city council seats from 47 to 25.
“I consulted with thousands of people right across the city and every person I talked to said you have to reduce the size of government,” Ford said at a press conference. “No one has ever said to me ‘Doug we need more politicians.’ In fact it is the opposite. People tell me that we have too many politicians, making it hard to get things done and making it harder to get things built.”
In Ford’s view, “We have 25 MPs, 25 MPPs and 25 school trustees” in Toronto, and there was no need for 47 councillors in “the most dysfunctional political arena in the country.” The Progressive Conservative government’s strategy would reportedly save $25 million over four years for Toronto taxpayers.
Reducing the number of Toronto council seats isn’t a new concept. It’s been suggested by organizations and individuals over the years, including Ford during his one term (2010-2014) as a city councillor.
Larger governments don’t lead to more effective governments. If anything, it makes them more ineffective. This has been witnessed at Toronto council for decades, during multiple hours of needless discussion about minor issues, and councillors then mostly voting along informal party lines and political alliances.
Hence, Ford’s initiative seemed like a wise proposal that would save tax dollars.
Many left-wing councillors and ward candidates were predictably furious at Ford’s announcement. Some claimed the move was anti-democratic, they’ve been campaigning since May, he had no right to do this at such a late date, and had never even discussed this idea during the campaign. (There was also questions about the premier’s motivation in eliminating elections for two regional chairs, one of which included former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown.)
Well, the Ontario premier and legislative assembly actually have the democratic right, through the City of Toronto Act, to adjust the parameters of a municipal election.
It’s true, however, that some candidates started campaigning early and Ford’s announcement occurred just before the July 27 candidate registration deadline. The timing could have been better but Ford has only been premier since June 29. As well, the PC government has a four-year mandate to discuss and pass legislation – and, like all previous governments of different political stripes, not all of it is going to be related to campaign promises.
This was of little conciliation to Toronto Mayor John Tory. While he’s not opposed to reducing council seats, he felt this was being done far too late in the game – and without proper consultation. He hasn’t ruled out a legal challenge.
And there could be one more actor in this political play: Ottawa.
Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, a former Toronto city councillor, told the media that Ford’s proposal was “reckless” and “irresponsible.” He feels the premier “doesn’t like Toronto,” is “breaking” the city, and the feds can’t “stand idly by and let this happen.”
What did Vaughan mean by this?
“We may not be able to change the electoral map,” he said, but if Ottawa has to “work around Queen’s Park, we will work around Queen’s Park. Because at the end of the day Torontonians are Canadians too, and the Canadian government has a responsibility to protect Canadians, especially when people are taking such vindictive and destructive actions towards them.”
That’s a thinly-veiled warning, no matter how you slice it. Especially considering Ottawa has reserve power under the Constitution, which it’s rarely used, but may be toying with in this instance.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.