Monday, June 24, 2024
HomeWorldOpinion | What Toronto’s new minority-rule mayor says about Canadian democracy

Opinion | What Toronto’s new minority-rule mayor says about Canadian democracy

“If there’s one tenet that defines democracy different than any other system, it’s called majority government,” David Crombie — former Tiny Perfect Mayor of Toronto, former federal conservative MP cabinet minister, perpetual symbol of reasonable political consensus — said last week on TVO’s “The Agenda.” “The idea that you can get rid of it and say ‘trust me’ is bizarre.”

Well, yes. Bizarre and troubling and somehow also only a little surprising just now. Crombie was talking about the provincial bill giving Toronto Mayor John Tory the power to pass bylaws with only one-third support from council. But his characterization of a bizarre shift away from commonly accepted principles of constitutional democracy could have applied to a number of Canadian leaders. Creeping authoritarianism appears to be the season’s hottest government look.

I mean, there’s Alberta’s Danielle Smith, who in her first days as premier is boldly modelling what constitutional expert Emmet Macfarlane calls “the most unconstitutional bill in Canada’s modern history.” Macfarlane says the so-called Alberta “sovereignty act” is “a full-frontal assault on not only the very idea of federalism and the constitutional division of powers but also on responsible government and representative democracy.”

It’s as if Smith felt the need to one-up the signature style of Ontario Premier Doug Ford — the author of the bizarre move to make Tory a minority-rule mayor of Toronto, and now loser of 14 court cases striking down his legislation — who had begun to make a habit of accessorizing his laws with the invocation of the notwithstanding clause that allows legislation that violates Charter rights to stand.

Though he backed off his most recent attempt to do so, he has also been conducting a shock-and-awe campaign of legislation overturning various elements of Ontario municipal democracy while giving away lucrative development opportunities to various corporate interests.

This follows a few years in which successive governments in Quebec have been wearing their minority-bashing authoritarian tendencies proudly, invoking the notwithstanding clause in 2019 and 2021 for bills that forbid religious minorities from publicly practising their faith and severely limiting the use of any language other than French (and allowing extreme policing of those limits).

If Quebec’s government led the way in showing how to disregard democratic norms, its people seem to be leading the way in public acceptance of that trend. An Angus Reid poll last month found a “significant minority” of Canadians “showing enthusiasm” for authoritarianism — specifically, those agreeing they want or at least are open to “a strong leader who does not bother with Parliament or elections.” That anti-democratic sentiment was strongest in Quebec, where 43 per cent of people don’t oppose such an strongman system (and fully 28 per cent of people think it is “great” or “good”).

But it was substantial across the country, too: 28 per cent of Canadians say either they support an authoritarian strong leader system or they’re unsure.

Angus Reid polled the U.S. on the same questions, and found significantly stronger authoritarian support there. It’s hard not to wonder if this — like New York clothing trends or a terrible flu strain — could be a contagion spreading across the border gradually, both in the level of public support and in the minority-rule tactics of political leaders.

Canadians saw from afar how Donald Trump’s authoritarian impulses were embraced to the point that the substantial Trump cult tried to overthrow an election. And they may have noticed the Republican party continue to work the system and fix laws to entrench forms of minority rule. (Consider how over time the 50-50 Democratic-Republican state of Wisconsin has been rigged to ensure Republican state supermajorities that then have overruled or disempowered elected Democratic governors.)

Looking at the rhetoric and campaign tactics of right-wing movements in Canada, you can see them learning from the U.S. example.

If that brings to mind the anti-vaccine convoy protests that kicked off the year in Ottawa, it might also seem strange if I didn’t include the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act among the examples of recent obvious authoritarian measures. Indeed, both at the time and in retrospect throughout the recent public inquiry hearings, the justification for invoking that measure and many of the elements of its implementation have raised important questions.

Justin Trudeau, always on-trend. And often apparently searching for an opportunity to create a “just watch me” moment in memory of his father’s defining strongman-confronts-crisis episode of vast authoritarian overreach.

But it is interesting to note that while some (like Ford) are sometimes explicitly trying to pre-emptively disregard Charter rights, the very text of the Emergencies Act required they continue to be respected. And the spectacle of Trudeau testifying at length at the public inquiry last week served as an example of a democratic check on the authority of the government and its leaders. Extraordinary measures were taken; it’s somewhat reassuring to see them subject to extraordinary scrutiny.

Scrutiny and debate and checks on power seem to be precisely what a lot of these other moves are trying to override.

“The idea … that somehow you can have a third of the council agree and Bob’s you’re uncle, that’s all, you’re done,” Crombie said on TVO. “You’re doing two things: You’re breaking the basic tenet of a democratic system, but more than that, it’s disastrous because you’re not going to be able to inform yourself about other people’s views other than the ones that you hold.”

Majority rule, coupled with respect for the rights and participation of the minority. That’s our system in a nutshell. Everywhere you look, it suddenly appears to be under attack.

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