In one long slow act of revenge against Toronto, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has put democracy on the ballot in the upcoming municipal election.
The sweeping new powers, passed by the Ford government, would give the mayors of Ontario’s two largest cities — Toronto and Ottawa — power to push through issues of “provincial priorities.” These powers are meant to be implemented after this month’s municipal elections.
Toronto mayoral candidate Chloe Brown said it best in last week’s CARP Toronto Mayoral Debate when she rebutted John Tory’s claim that the mayor can only do so much. “Doug Ford is kind of the mayor now, because John Tory hasn’t really challenged him.”
This slate of “strong mayor powers” allows the mayors to veto any policy that doesn’t align with “provincial priorities,” which councils could only override with a two-thirds vote.
These priorities, per the government’s draft wording, involve building 1.5 million new residential units by 2031, and constructing and maintaining “infrastructure to support accelerated supply and availability of housing including, but not limited to, transit, roads, utilities, and servicing.” It’s a challenge to think of municipal responsibilities that might fall outside of that.
Key citywide tasks that have until now been the domain of council, such as drafting budgets and hiring senior civil servants, would be handed exclusively to the office of the mayor. I love the smell of despotism in the morning.
The motivation for these powers stems straight from Doug Ford’s all-encompassing spite towards Toronto and its city council. It follows his move to cut the size of the council, even going so far as to threaten to invoke the notwithstanding clause in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to do so.
These powers are meant to be implemented in November, with the start of the new municipal terms. But while Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson isn’t seeking re-election, we could see these powers handed to a successor who approves of Watson’s tactics. These include, but are not limited to, having a backchannel deal with the convoy fascists, while failing to document key communications with the man who brokered the deal between them.
Meanwhile, Toronto Mayor John Tory, who is seeking re-election, called the brutal clearing of the Trinity Bellwoods encampment last year “compassionate.” These are the mayors that Ford had in mind while crafting these new powers to carry out his agenda.
In the CARP debate, Tory appeared to agree with the other candidates that Toronto’s government needs work, but curiously didn’t address how he’s in a position to improve the mess whose growth he’s spent a decade overseeing. The massive shifting of powers from the mayor to the premier then becomes a question that’s left hanging in the air. How is Tory going to fix a system he’s spent the past eight years struggling with?
(Other than CARP’s, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, the only other mayoral debate Tory has so far agreed to participate in is being hosted by the Toronto Board of Trade, representing Toronto’s business community. That takes place on Monday and will be broadcast on TVO.)
The primary excuse for this power grab is to streamline processes in order to build more housing, so that Ford and the PCs can fix the housing crisis – ignoring the majority that they’ve held the past four years, when housing issues have gotten far worse. Do they really expect us to believe that the biggest roadblock to solving the housing crisis was the lack of a Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act?
Simply building more housing isn’t actually a solution to the dire situation we find ourselves in. It’s quite clear that, like the new plans for a Highway 413, developers stand to gain far more than the rest of us.
Meanwhile, things like changing zoning laws, approving affordable housing projects, and implementing actual rent controls are all solutions that make Toronto and Ottawa homeowners upset, and in Toronto, they’re the only voter base Tory caters to.
Developers’ only goal is to make money. When the Canadian housing market “cooled” at the end of the summer, they announced they were delaying 100,000 condos in the GTA. Meanwhile, 200 unhoused people died in Toronto last year. Ford must think his constituents are incapable of critical thought if he wants to pretend this has anything to do with combating the housing crisis.
Ford has announced he’s looking to extend the legislation to more Ontario cities. The plan to consolidate as many municipalities as possible under the control of the PCs would presumably set off alarm bells for those who take conservatives at their word that they’re in favour of smaller government. But it’s 2022, and hypocrisy as legitimate critique has finally died its prolonged and painful death. Ford simply doesn’t care about what he says versus what he does. Certainly not when he has won a second majority government due to an incompetent opposition and – oh look, another use of the notwithstanding clause to tilt election-advertising laws in his favour.
What we have on our hands is another step away from liberal democracy in Ontario, and another step towards Ford’s particular brand of direct capitalist control, solidifying its grip over nominally democratic processes.
The implementation of “strong mayor powers” robs us of what little democracy we have left. Local elections are often an effective political entry point for the average person, and curbing the effectiveness of these municipal seats has a trickle-down effect. Municipal elections are already depressingly low-interest for the average Canadian; this act will further entrench a feeling of helplessness to those looking to get involved and make a change.
By stripping municipal councils of much of their power, Ford has disempowered the people of Toronto and Ottawa. The premier instead favours policies that transfer more power directly to him, leaving residents with even fewer liberties. This is a troubling step towards a rising authoritarianism in this country; every step should be considered a grave threat to our democracy.