Originally published in The Toronto Star 3 Sep 2013
How much democracy is too much? Toronto City Council has an answer. Last Monday, it decided a byelection to fill a vacant council seat is more democracy than the district’s 52, 000 residents deserve, or the city can afford. At least, that is how the vote will be remembered a year from now. Because, that is how it was intended to be.
After hearing an impassioned plea by Mayor Rob Ford to choose democracy and set a byelection date, councillors voted instead to decide themselves who should represent Doug Holyday’s former west-end ward.
Without a doubt, council’s 19-14 vote against his byelection motion was an “in your face” beat-down for Ford and he is clearly smarting from it. He doesn’t like to lose, not even if a tactical loss means a strategic victory. On the other hand, many of the mayor’s political advisers are privately pleased with result. That’s because the issue, like many the mayor’s office brings to council, was a trap.
Politically, the byelection question was a win-win for Ford. If council had done the right thing and chosen to proceed with a byelection, the mayor would have chalked up a council victory and hit the streets campaigning for one candidate or another. No matter who he supported, it would shore up his own support in Etobicoke, where it’s softened since 2010.
Left-wing councillors understood that much. Councillor Janet Davis even tried to extract from Ford a promise not to campaign. Ford refused to bite. What these councillors failed to grasp was that, no matter how they voted, Ford couldn’t lose. By voting against the mayor’s byelection request, council painted itself into an anti-democratic corner. This is bad news for those councillors who want to challenge the mayor in 2014, because they all voted with the pack and the pack ran off the cliff.
The byelection loss was a strategic win for Ford in three important ways. First, it provided evidence that council is largely motivated, not by reason or logic, but by its hatred of Rob Ford. Council voted to “punish the mayor.” Canadians love an underdog, and no one does underdog better than Rob Ford.
Second, it put Rob Ford squarely on the side of the democracy angels, and positioned council as a petty group of power-hungry, anti-democratic partisans. Absolutely no one believes left-wing councillors are more fiscally stingy than Ford. People will believe councillors voted, not to save money, but to keep control of the appointment to themselves and out of the hands of voters. Voters don’t like that.
Canadians like democracy. It’s a defining theme in our culture. Toronto, in particular, is a city of immigrants, many of whom came to Canada from countries where democracy is little more than a wistful dream. Having their electoral rights stolen by a bunch of uppity councillors infuriates them.
These immigrants and their neighbours know Rob Ford well. He’s the guy who returns their phone calls, listens to their problems and shows up at their door with city staff in tow to make things right. Warts and all, he’s someone they trust. This vote singles Ford out, once again, as the guy who will stand up for the democratic franchise many of them sacrificed so much to enjoy.
Finally, the vote highlighted the dysfunction of council. Pollsters often report the mayor’s public approval ratings, but they rarely report public approval ratings for city council as an entity. They should, because those numbers are shockingly bad. An overwhelming majority of voters in Toronto believe city council is a dysfunctional mess. Any mayoral contenders who come from that mess in the 2014 campaign will be handicapped from the start.
Council’s decision was petty and foolish. It robbed 52,000 residents of Etobicoke Centre of their democratic franchise. Councillors intended to make the mayor look weak and prevent him from bolstering his public support by campaigning. It is ironic, then, that their decision will likely achieve exactly the opposite.