Pardon my language, but what a fucking mess.
Over the weekend, I was trying to develop a column examining why this municipal race – the seventh I’ve covered as an urban affairs writer – has, to borrow from the language of early child development, failed to thrive.
We’re now well past Labour Day, the unofficial start of the sprint-to-the-finish phase, and there have been no mayoral debates, just one poll, and scant voter engagement (to my eye). Jennifer Keesmaat and John Tory have launched a handful of policy plans, taken a few shots at one another, held modest rallies. In some ward races, a few interesting challengers have surfaced – e.g. Tiffany Ford trying to take down the clown known as Mammoliti. In others, it’s mostly prurient and confused speculation about who’s running where, against whom, and why. Overall, a low-energy, muddled affair.
Of course, one need look no further for an explanation than the suffocating impact of Bill 5 and its chaotic aftermath – the city’s tentative response, the electrifying hearing on a long weekend Friday, and yesterday’s Wagnerian clash that concluded with the premier of Canada’s wealthiest province reaching for the constitutional nuclear codes to achieve god only knows what in his quest for blah blah blah.
The drama is as riveting as a massive car accident, and even the most disciplined rationalist can’t help but gawk in awe. After all, when inter-governmental relations has been transformed into a bloody bout of mixed martial arts, municipal electioneering — with its earnest debates about speed limits and transit lines and different approaches for developing affordable housing — has zero chance.
This muzzling effect was precisely the point Justice Edward Belobaba was warning of in his extraordinary ruling. Behind all the rarified legal language about the Charter and the Saskatchewan reference and the division of powers, the reality is that Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has chosen to drown out the sound of a city talking to itself about the issues the city needs to tackle.
It is by no means a coincidence that this is the gang who weaponized all those political staffers to clap loudly over reporters’ questions during press conferences. What a very long and sorry journey Ontario’s Tories have traveled since the progressive-minded city-building era of Bill Davis.
The question hanging densely over this shameful shit-show remains unchanged from the day Premier Doug Ford revealed his intention to slash the size of council: Why now? Why the rush?
There was absolutely nothing to stop him from introducing the very same piece of legislation on October 23, the day after the municipal election, and sending a clear signal that 2018-2022 would mark the final term with a council of 47 elected officials. He could have made precisely the same claims about inefficiency. And the controversy would have been just as front-end loaded, save a few months.
Yet such a move would also have been judgment-proof — the provincial government exercising its jursidctional rights under section 92 of the constitution, end of story.
Instead, Ford & Co. has torched the party’s reputation in large swaths of the city by suspending the Charter-protected fundamental rights of voters and candidates to express themselves. They’ve scared the crap out of every municipal council in the province, if not the country. And that distant but fast-approaching roar you hear is the looming campaign to advocate for home rule and city charters – a message track I fully expect to come from some high profile Liberals in Ontario, who will now do everything in their power to conflate Ford and the hapless Andrew Scheer in 2019.
So much political capital spent, so little return on investment. After all, the province’s budget won’t become one cent smaller because of this legislation (Ford’s absurdist claims to the contrary). Council sessions won’t be any shorter. And the cabinet table, one’s got to think, can’t be a very happy place today, given the fact that there are enough experienced people in that group who may have been wondering (to themselves) what the hell the premier and his advisers were thinking by invoking the notwithstanding clause for the first time in Ontario history.
As for Toronto’s election, I almost feel like we may as well just call it off. Ford’s intrusion and the respective candidates’ response or lack thereof will so dominate the campaign, which raises the likelihood that nothing substantive relating to life in the city is going to get fleshed out or debated with any kind of resolution.
Two weeks ago, on the day of her big transit platform reveal, I spoke with Jennifer Keesmaat about her campaign and asked how she planned to pay for all the promises on her maps. What about revenue tools? She hedged, promising that the answer will come later in the campaign but also noting that as mayor, she doesn’t want to make living in the city any more expensive (an answer, I dare say, we’ve all heard far too many times).
Keesmaat is a serious candidate with a serious and mainly progressive platform, and I expect her to come out with something. But will the election feature meaningful discussion about how the city plans to pay for new transit and new housing, etc?
Of course not. In fact, I fully anticipate that if so much as a whisper of conversation about new revenue tools surfaces, Ford — like an attention-seeking five-year-old — will wade back in to the thick of things and throw a tantrum, pledging to remove City of Toronto Act powers to levy other forms of taxation.
Or what about the subway? Will we have a robust debate among the candidates about what conditions – financial, operational, programmatic — should be demanded from the province if the subway is uploaded?
As before: Don’t hold your breath. Keesmaat has said she’ll insist the city should have the ability to determine new transit routes. But Ford’s willingness to use a water cannon to extinguish a birthday candle offers a foreshadowing of the chill and intrusions to come. He won’t engage; he’ll threaten and deploy the same sort of leverage politics practiced so ruthlessly by the world’s biggest populist bully.
Again, one must come back to the warnings articulated by Justice Belobaba. The province’s legislative intervention did not merely inject “unprecedented” administrative and procedural chaos into democracy’s most important rite; Bill 5 and its successor –the new version, fitted out with a notwithstanding clause provision, is expected to be tabled tomorrow — will have the effect of silencing the views Ford does not like and casting a chilly pall over the necessary conversations Torontonians need to have with themselves.
“How,” as Belobaba wondered pointedly, “could it not?”