There was a time when all participants in the political process – whether from the left or right – disagreed about the best approach to issues, but did so with a respect for their opponents and our democratic process.
This is not one of those times.
While most Canadians were focused on their barbeques and vacations, Doug Ford’s Conservatives rammed through Bill 5: an unprecedented new law that alters the City of Toronto’s election rules, over the strenuous objections of the city and in the middle of the election itself.
Though much ink has been spilled in the media on this topic, I’m not sure the national implications of Bill 5 have really sunk in.
Doug Ford didn’t campaign on a promise to unilaterally change Toronto’s election rules. He didn’t submit the scheme to public consultation. And he refused to allow it to be studied – as is customary – by a legislative committee.
The aim of Bill 5 is undemocratic, and the manner in which it was enacted similarly so.
In fact, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, a staunch Ford ally, suggested one motivation behind Bill 5 is that the Conservatives anticipated their political opponents picking up seats in the Toronto municipal election. So they changed the rules to make it impossible for them to do so.
Though it pains me to say, and the fate of Bill 5 will be decided in the courts in short order, we should expect to see Bill 5-type provincial attacks on municipal governments become a standard tactic elsewhere in the country. After all, why should provinces put up with cantankerous municipal demands when they can just short-circuit the complaining entirely? If the Ontario government can trample on the rights of the largest city in the country, with nearly 3 million citizens, then surely all municipalities are vulnerable.
One of the talking points in favour of Bill 5 is that less elected representatives is somehow beneficial for the citizens of Toronto. This argument is mirrored in the current Quebec provincial election in which the Coalition Avenir Québec is running on a platform of eliminating elected school board Trustees throughout the province in the name of “efficiency”. Why it’s desirable to have less responsiveness, and fewer advocates for parents and kids, in the often-complicated school system is unclear. What is clear is that strongmen throughout history have used “democracy is too messy and expensive” as the oldest excuse in the book to consolidate their personal power.
As Canadians, we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking we can escape political trends that are roiling other countries. Attempts to limit voting rights and the participation of charities and trade unions in the political process, and the ability of municipal and state governments to enact progressive legislation, are all part of the playbook for Trump and his allies across the United States. Canada is just a little behind the curve.
Like weeds in the summertime, bad ideas have a habit of spreading. But their adoption is not inevitable and good ideas can sometimes prevail in the end.
Despite strenuous opposition by vested interests, virtually every province has now banned big corporate and union donations in politics. Some corporations and their political allies prefer a US-style “anything goes” approach to campaign donations. Thankfully, they’ve been systematically losing this argument.
And this fall, British Columbians will be voting in a referendum to decide whether they want to establish a modern proportional representation (PR) form of voting for the next provincial election. PR systems are used by most democracies in the world, they encourage democratic participation, and they ensure the political system is responsive to every voter. If BC votes for PR this good idea will spread across the country in short order.
These are fights we can’t afford to lose.
Tommy Douglas said that “The greatest way to defend democracy is to make it work”. Over the past few months it’s become clear that Canadians need to stand up for democracy like never before and ensure the voices of everyday people – as opposed to those of the rich and powerful — are heard loud and clear.
Whether pushing back against Bill 5 in Toronto, ensuring Saskatchewan follows the rest of the country in banning big money in politics, or winning for PR in BC, the fight to improve the quality of Canadian democracy is a key political battleground. From sea to sea to sea.
Rick Smith is the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute (www.BroadbentInstitute.ca)