About 25 years ago, I returned to Concordia University in Montreal to do a master’s degree in political science. One of my courses, “Impediments to Democracy,” examined challenges to democratic systems posed by institutions like the Canadian Senate in which appointed senators have the power to delay or even stop legislation passed by the elected members of the House of Commons.
I have thought of that course lately while observing new impediments to democracy being thrown up by powerful politicians in advanced democracies – including the United States, Israel, and right here in Ontario.
On July 27, the very day that the nomination-filing period for Ontario’s municipal elections on October 22 ended, Premier Doug Ford announced that the size of the city council in Toronto would be slashed from 47 councillors to 25.
Changing the size of Toronto’s city council was not something Ford mentioned even once in the campaign for the June 7 Ontario election that brought him to power; or in his new government’s Speech from the Throne delivered by Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell on July 12 – just two weeks earlier.
Moreover, the announcement that the number of city council seats in Toronto would be cut almost in half was made without any consultation with the people of Toronto or their elected representatives at the municipal or even provincial levels. With nominations for the mayoralty and city council seats open since May and closing that day, Ford, essentially, announced he was unilaterally changing the rules in the middle of the game.
Prior to taking office as premier, Ford’s only previous experience in elected office was as a one-term Toronto city councillor from 2010 to 2014. During that term, he also served as the right-hand man to then-mayor Rob Ford, his late brother. Few will deny that Rob Ford’s tenure in office, fuelled by substance abuse and marked by sometimes-bizarre behaviour, was less than successful. The Ford brothers were frequently at odds with their city council colleagues. When Rob Ford withdrew his candidacy during the 2014 election campaign due to a cancer diagnosis, to which he later succumbed, Doug Ford stepped in but lost the election to John Tory (ironically, a former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader).
With that history in mind, it is hard not to see the premier’s move to slash the size of Toronto’s city council as anything but vindictive payback to his former colleagues. Such vindictiveness is profoundly undemocratic.
If this measure is passed (as I write on August 3 it hasn’t yet), Toronto – with a population more than three times larger – will have a city council almost the same size as Ottawa: we have a mayor and 23 councillors. Following Ford’s Toronto logic, we should have about eight councillors. But, Ford says he has no plans to tamper with the size of Ottawa’s city council – thus adding credence to the theory that the Toronto move is simple vindictiveness.
Meanwhile, south of the border, the daily news is dominated by the myriad challenges to democracy posed by U.S. President Donald Trump – too many to mention but not the least of which is his constant campaign to discredit the mainstream media as “the enemy of the people” or “fake news.” A free press is essential to the functioning of democracy and it is protected by the first amendment to the United States Constitution, which, as president, Trump has sworn to protect and defend.
And, in Israel, where the inspiring 1948 Declaration of Independence established the country as a Jewish state while guaranteeing “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” as well as guaranteeing “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” there are now aspects of the new nation-state law that serve to contradict those notions of equality. Some of those concerns are addressed in a JTA article found at this link.
Even Jews in the Jewish state do not seem to have complete freedom of religion given the monopoly the haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate holds over so many aspects of Jewish life in Israel. Just last month, a Conservative rabbi was arrested in Haifa for performing a non-Orthodox Jewish wedding (see the story at this link).
In these times, we need to be increasingly vigilant about protecting our democratic values and in holding our elected officials to high standards of democratic conduct.