Days after vowing to use the notwithstanding clause to overrule parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Premier Doug Ford took to the pages of the Toronto Sun to explain why.
Some explanation was definitely required.
The notwithstanding clause has never been used before by an Ontario government. And in invoking it to bypass a court ruling that his move to cut the size of Toronto council is unconstitutional, Ford is using it on an issue that affects just one municipality.
It has some critics wondering if this is the political equivalent of using a nuclear warhead to kill a bug.
Ford, though, uses his newspaper space to argue that his goal of cutting the size of council is of such great importance that it’s worth the firepower.
But is it? Here’s how the premier’s claims stack up to the facts.
Is Toronto council dysfunctional?
In his Sun column, Ford says Toronto has “a bloated and inefficient council where debates can go on for days but no decisions ever get made.”
Even if we grant the premier some licence for hyperbole — he’s earned it — this is not an accurate description of how Toronto council operates.
At their July meeting, their last regular meeting of this council term, councillors adopted 398 items. Of those, 197 were adopted without any debate. Decisions were definitely made.
And this is pretty typical. Representing a growing city, Toronto council has lots of business to consider, but most of it is effectively dealt with by city staff or at the committee level, and does not require much if any debate at council.
Bigger, contentious items — like the fate of the eastern section of the Gardiner expressway, or regulations governing Uber or Airbnb — take longer, but that’s to be expected.
Is Toronto council getting nothing built?
Ford also claims this dysfunction is the reason the city isn’t building infrastructure. “No matter who the mayor is, time and time again we see that transit, infrastructure and housing just cannot get built,” he writes.
This is self-evidently wrong. The city has indisputably built transit, infrastructure and housing over the last few years.
A six-stop extension of the subway opened last December. The Eglinton Crosstown LRT — the biggest single expansion of transit in Toronto in decades — is under construction now.
Mayor John Tory’s Open Door housing plan has funded more than 1,000 new affordable housing units.
The city’s waterfront has been radically transformed over the last decade with projects like the Queen’s Quay revitalization, and construction recently started on flood proofing in the port lands — a $1.25 billion project that will unlock an area the size of downtown Toronto for housing, offices and parks.
The premier can suggest the city could be building this stuff more quickly than it is — lots of people would say the same — but it’s unclear how reducing the number of city councillors will itself accelerate the pace of construction, unless the plan is to give the remaining councillors hard hats and shovels and tell them to start digging.
Are the only people opposed to this left-wing councillors and activists?
Ford dismisses the opposition to his council-cutting efforts as “a handful of left-wing city councillors who are desperately trying to save their taxpayer-funded jobs along with a network of activists and special interests who have entrenched their power under the status quo.”
That “handful of left-wing city councillors” is hard to square with the motions approved by a strong majority of council at their special meeting this past Thursday.
The vote to express strong opposition to Ford’s bill and the reduction of council carried with 29 in favour and just seven opposed. The 29 in favour included both suburban and downtown councillors, and crossed ideological lines.
The mayor, who previously was leader of the same provincial party Ford now commands, was also in favour.
Compounding things, the premier’s appeal to his popular support on this issue just isn’t supported by any polling data. An August poll by Forum Research found 52 per cent of Toronto residents opposed to reducing the size of Toronto council, with just 36 per cent in favour.
Did the Superior Court ruling block the government’s ability to reform council?
Ford says in ruling the provincial government’s council-cutting bill contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Justice Edward Belobaba “found in favour of these councillors and activists and their attempts to block our efforts to put an end to the gridlock at Toronto City Council.”
Belobaba did no such thing.
His ruling specifically mentions that Ford’s government would have been fine to cut council at a point outside an election period. It’s the Ford government’s insistence on doing this in the middle of an active campaign that got them into trouble with the court.
And that trouble is not over yet.
On Thursday, Toronto City Clerk Ulli Watkiss — the person responsible for ensuring Toronto holds fair and open elections — told councillors she had retained independent legal counsel and that the municipal election scheduled for Oct. 22 was “becoming virtually impossible” for her to carry out under any scenario.
Veteran Coun. John Filion told his colleagues that he believed the city may be on the road to a scenario where the validity of the election could be successfully challenged in court.
This issue is far from settled.
And while Ford continues to offer his own reasoning for why Toronto council must be smaller, his government’s support for the urgency is harder to figure out.
On Friday, government house leader Todd Smith told Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway that the reason for the urgency was rooted in the need to “get things done to make the city of Toronto a better place to live.”
“Waiting another four years is not an option for our government,” he said.
But with it unclear how cutting the number of councillors will itself get more things done, a little patience would have saved the PC government a lot of legislative time and effort, and spared Toronto from ongoing confusion and uncertainty about the municipal election.
With so much at stake, it’s fair to ask: could any end ever really justify these chaotic means?