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By a vote of 24-21, Toronto City Council gave the middle finger to the old City of Toronto and East York by voting to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and maintain a crumbling two kilometre section of the elevated Gardiner Expressway from Jarvis Street to the Don Valley Parkway (DVP). To make matters worse, Mayor John Tory’s misleadingly named “hybrid” plan would see two new off ramps built at Cherry Street. This ashphalt pretzel will limit new development possibilities and sacrifice revenue opportunities.

Bucking advice from planning and urban experts, including Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmat, retired Chief Planner Paul Bedord and Christopher Hume to replace this stretch of the expressway with a more people-friendly eight-lane boulevard, the proposal was dismissed and derided by Tory and his coterie of four-wheel suburban councillors who can’t see beyond the 2018 election.

Citing added “congestion” (unproven) and “smart” financing ($500 million more than the boulevard) as the rationales to lock Toronto into this “100 year plan,” Mayor John Tory twisted enough suburban arms to get his way. He had to. Even some of his own Executive Committee jumped ship on this one (Michael Thompson, Paul Ainslie, Ana Bailão and Mary Margaret McMahon). Nor could he count on Rob Ford who also voted no on the hybrid.

Insisting that a challenge to car culture anywhere represents a “war on cars” everywhere, the “Grand Boulevard” option was dismissed as another left-wing “pet project” by right-wing media pundits and no doubt some councillors.

To their credit, councillors from the former city of Toronto and East York — most of them considered progressive — voted unanimously to reject the hybrid in favour of the boulevard. In particular, Councillors Joe Mihevc, Pam McConnell, Gord Perks and others put up strong arguments against the Hybrid plan.

Council progressives in disarray

 However, what’s missing from Toronto’s progressives is a vision to re-imagine and transform municipal democracy. What is likely to occur in the 2018 municipal elections is taking shape right now.

Progressives, notwithstanding the good work that they do, are in tatters and don’t appear to even have a credible contender for 2018. The politics of celebrity and anointment — Adam Giambrone and Olivia Chow — haven’t quite worked out as planned. If we learned anything from former Mayor David Miller, it was that his success was built on having a functioning NDP-Liberal coalition.

In my view, we’re in the current predicament generally and in particular around the Gardiner because municipal governance is messed up and because we needed Miller to help cement the positive changes that he initiated in his first two terms. Transit City, growing the tax base and the green plan stand out. I can’t blame Miller for not running again given how low the “garbage strike” dispute descended. But his mistake was in being part of the Adam Giambrone anointment committee. Giambrone was too partisan and just wasn’t ready.

“Going it alone” as progressives just can’t work in the Megacity. First we got Mel Lastman. Then it got us Rob Ford followed John Tory — two sides of the same dishonest conservative coin. Mike Harris’s motives for creating the megacity in the first place are revealed with brilliant clarity in both the last two mayoral elections and the Gardiner vote. It was the PCs version of the strategy of surrounding the city from the countryside.

With a vacuum on the left, Tory has taken to craven pandering to Rob Ford’s base in anticipation of a serious Ford challenge in 2018. This is what Toronto politics has been reduced to — a right-wing rivalry between Tory and the Fords for control of the Mayor’s office for the next 10 or 15 years.

Dysfunctionality at City Hall

It’s no secret that governance in Toronto is a mess. City Council sometimes looks more like a kindergarten class than a legislative assembly. Who can forget the Ford brothers rampaging across the floor of City Council to harass members of the public in the visitors’ gallery? Experts are routinely vilified and ignored by local politicians who claim to know better. Huge policy flip-flops regularly undermine progress that is made on some files.

The Council under Miller passed Transit City which would have brought rapid(er) transit to every corner of the city. Rob Ford canceled it with a simple declaration on his first day in office and foisted the Scarborough subway extension white elephant upon us a couple of years later.

Miniscule changes to the composition of the Council — or even just the election of a new mayor — can lead to major policy lurches because of the power of the mayor to appoint members to his executive and other plum posts as well as get his support for projects in their wards. For many, it’s not about doing what’s right. It’s about doing what you’re told by the guy in charge. While John Tory had no criticisms on Ford’s cancelation of Transit City and other policy reversals, he was the first to proclaim that there was no way the Scarborough stumpway would be revisited. The same applies to the Gardiner. Council has given Tory the “decisive” victory he needs to claim a democratic mandate.

Interestingly, Tory flip-flopped on both Ford’s TTC bus route cuts and on police carding although it’s far from clear what Tory would replace carding with. Both are admirable in their own ways yet they both reek of pandering for the next election.

The right wing solution to the City Hall dysfunctionality is to give even more power to the mayor’s office with an American-style “strong mayor system”. The mayor would become “decider-in-chief” and along with powerful lobbyists and vested interests, would have the power to veto a proposed much smaller city council in the name of “getting things done.” The Fords crowed about this from day one of Rob’s disreputable tenure as mayor.

“Power to the people” under proportional representation

Major changes in city governance are desperately needed.

Toronto’s progressive municipal councillors lack their own vision and proposal for democratic municipal governance. Progressives should be advocating for more “power to the people” with a council elected using equal votes, proportional representation and a mayor accountable to the Council. Instead, by supporting the status quo, they have ceded this debate to the right wing.

Democratic governance would have greatly reduced the likelihood that the Gardiner “hybrid” option would have won the day. Or that the cancelation of the proposed LRT extension to the subway in Scarborough would have occurred. Or that the wall of condos on the western end of the Gardiner would have been built the way they were. Or that the likes of Rob Ford could ever become (or stay on as) mayor.

What Toronto needs is a municipal democracy where all voters have an equal vote and city council doesn’t just represent the winners in each of 44 wards. Representation is not something that should be “won.” All voters deserve first-choice representation. From there, a working majority could wield legitimate power and lead the city forward.

Instead, many of these progressive councillors, former councillors and other luminaries on the left, have rallied behind a flawed system: the ranked ballot in single member wards, as the great democratic enabler for Toronto. Never mind that the Gardiner vote would have likely ended up exactly the same had the same councillors been elected with a ranked ballot. Never mind that winning with 50 per cent plus one is not a big improvement over winning with 50 per cent minus one.

As I pointed out in my post on April 8, the timing could not be worse with a federal election approaching because the Liberal Party backroomers have a vested interest in muddying the waters between proportional representation and the winner-take-all “ranked ballots in single member districts”.

The opposition to ranked ballots in multi-member wards from our progressives is rooted in retail politics. It is fueled by the notion that councillors represent everyone — including those who voted for their opponents and disagree with everything they stand for. Why? Because councillors will take care of everyone’s potholes and cut anyone’s ribbon.

The legislative function at Council is relegated to an equal or lesser role than “service”. The more our councillors’ primary role as legislator is conflated with that of glorified 311 operator, the more it demeans the central role of our elected representatives and de-motivates voters from turning up at the polls. Let’s beef up 311 and the Ombudsman’s office and let city staff take care of the potholes. Council’s main role should be to legislate and set long-term direction.

Municipal electoral reform

The main argument used to oppose municipal PR is that political parties aren’t allowed to operate at that level and therefore winner take all voting systems are as good as it gets. Aside from the self-serving rationale to protect the “fiefdom” model of single ward jurisdictions, there are two problems with this line of reasoning

First, party operatives are operating behind the scenes. Voters generally vote along party lines even without the labels. Ask just about any volunteer about their voting preferences and it will be clear that many align municipal preferences with their provincial and federal choices. With parties are operating in the shadows, we get backroom politics at its worst. Voters have no say in candidate selection for councillor or mayor. We are told who to support and are expected to fall in line without question by opening our pocketbooks and volunteering our time.

The only “accountability” we have is to try and oust them in the next election. But the incumbency advantage is huge in municipal elections where most voters don’t pay a lot of attention and name recognition alone can sometimes carry the day. In 2014, we saw only one incumbent Toronto councillor defeated. And just look at Rob Ford’s 21-year-old nephew Michael who handily became a school trustee without any experience or without attending a single debate.

It’s true that political parties and politicians are not popular or well respected.  So I will take a risk and suggest that formalizing and regulating political parties at the municipal level in Ontario is in our best interests. It happens in other provinces such as B.C. It is not a completely alien concept despite what our leaders on the left tell us. It would require provincial legislative change that will never happen if we don’t ask for it.

Second, it is possible to design a PR system without political parties. One model is called the “single transferable vote” which uses a ranked ballot in multi-member wards. Toronto used to have multi-member wards so that is not an alien concept either. STV can work with or without political parties. However, with the larger wards required to produce an element of proportionality, it makes sense for like-minded politicians to cooperate and pool resources. Call it a slate. Call it a party.

With the Province of Ontario tabling legislation to enable “ranked ballots” and the upcoming reviews of the City of Toronto Act and the Municipal Act, this is the time to organize for positive change. Voting systems are rarely ever changed so let’s make sure we get it right the first time.

What about the mayoral elections?

With a democratically elected, PR Council, how should the mayor of the fourth largest jurisdiction in Canada be elected? Why not have the mayor elected by — and accountable to council — not unlike our provincial and federal Westminster governance models? Sure, that’s another tough sell. But that shouldn’t preclude our municipal leaders from suggesting it if it’s the right thing to do. Clinging onto the status quo — or worse, supporting phony reforms such as the ranked ballot in single member wards — is not leadership. It is reverting to the primal instincts of politicians who are always worrying about re-election.

Progressives have ceded the debate to the right who are now sucking up all the air. When it comes to specific issues, Toronto’s progressives do a pretty good job of lining up on the correct (but often losing) side of issues. But when it comes to putting forward a vision that will get us out of the mess we’re in and minimize the likelihood of bad decisions such Gardiner and reversing Transit City, they need to put on their thinking caps. It would also be good to see some leadership from the Ontario NDP on some of these challenging issues.

Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done. 


Image: wikimedia commons

Gary Shaul

Gary Shaul is a union activist who has been involved with a number of issues including electoral reform, anti-war, international solidarity, human rights and the environment. A Toronto resident, he has...