As a rule, people aren’t interested in talking about reforming democracy or government—hey, stay awake!—unless they think that doing so will rig the system in favour of candidates they like. But spiteful democratic reform is worse than a weak-sauce argument—it’s a corruption of the very concept of democracy.
And yet we hear it again and again. We hear it in the service of good ideas, like the ranked balloting proposal that’s coming to city council next week (many argue that without vote-splitting, Rob Ford might never have won). And it comes up as support for bad ideas, like when Rob and Doug Ford promise to cut the number of councillors in Toronto (and spend radio airtime fantasizing about the Gord Perks vs. Sarah Doucette and Adam Vaughan vs. Mike Layton battles that would result).
But the place you hear it the loudest these days is in the vocal downtown sovereigntist movement that’s been swelling (again) since the most recent Ford scandal broke—where folks are suggesting de-amalgamating the former municipalities of Metropolitan Toronto. The preamble to this manifesto proclaims that the Ford brothers were foisted on the Real City of Toronto by a bunch of selfish rubes from Scarborough, North York, York, East York, and Etobicoke. The proposed solution, then, is to let Ford Nation go ahead and govern itself while the grown-ups of Bay Street, Queen Street, and U of T get on with building Torontopia.
Of course, they’re right that amalgamation itself was a mistake. But they’re wrong to think we can, or should, try to undo it 15 years later.
First of all, the daiquiri’s already been blended, and trying to unmerge the constituent ingredients would be an administrative nightmare. Second, the big issues that most frustrate the city—transit and transportation, policing, affordable housing—would still need to be managed across the region by a larger body, just as the big issues were managed by Metro before amalgamation. Which means that a suburban majority on the regional council would still outgun the downtown on almost all the really important issues.
Third, and maybe most interestingly, is that if separating downtown were possible, it would still be entirely selfish and irresponsible. A growing majority of the most troubled neighbourhoods in Toronto are in the suburban areas, mainly because those are increasingly the more affordable parts of Toronto. The proposal to erect a political wall has the whiff of white flight: The wards that Ford carried in the last election are places where ethnic “visible minorities” are an actual majority, while the downtown is more than 70 per cent white. All 13 of the city’s “priority neighbourhoods” are in the inner suburbs, where the average income is 30 per cent lower than in the old City of Toronto. So be careful how you discuss “these people” screwing up Toronto politics: De-amalgamation looks a lot like segregation by ethnicity and wealth.
Of course, the suburbs are also the places where transit sucks, where riding a bike is difficult and where old highrise tower neighbourhoods are crumbling. If those areas are voting for people like Rob Ford, a good democratic approach might be to ask them why, instead of threatening them with exile.
There are governance changes we can and should make to ensure better local democracy in Toronto: entrusting more local-issue decision-making and spending power to the ward or neighbourhood level might be a start. And, yes, that ranked balloting idea should be adopted either way, because it would ensure a majority of citizens choose whoever wins.
As for Ford’s suggestion of cutting the size of city council? Without other dramatic changes, it would just make government less responsive and more alienating for citizens—his supporters included. That makes perfect sense, since by now it’s entirely clear that Ford himself is a significant hindrance to good government in Toronto. But remedying that problem doesn’t involve thinking of ways to reform the democratic system—it simply involves using the democratic system we have to defeat him at the ballot box.