If newly crowned John Tory has all the power, it hardly matters what his intentions are
As Coun. Josh Matlow pointed out, rules about how the mayor of Toronto can govern are not about John Tory’s character. They are about the powers of that office, Edward Keenan writes.
Nov. 24, 2022
And on the first day he cometh to the podium, this familiar face clothed in new, powerful robes: Lord Supreme Strong Mayor of Toronto, Emperor of Scarborough and Etobicoke, Sovereign of the York Realms North, East, and Regular; First of His Name, Hand of the Ford, Advisor of the Rogers, Defender of the Sign of Many Colours: John Tory.
Gaze on his golden chain of office, ye mighty, and despair! And so on and so forth.
Newly endowed by premierial beneficence with unprecedented powers, on Wednesday afternoon he thus spake to the first meeting of the new city council: “What will success look like four years from now?” he asked. “More housing will be getting built. And it will be happening faster than ever before. More homes will have been open to families and more will be on the way, The supply of affordable and supportive housing will have been significantly increased.”
Let it be known Toronto’s re-elected and supercharged mayor says his “motives are pure” and he plans to use his powers for good. He says he wants housing built -- and lots of it -- and will make it happen come hell or high water. Which is why he requested the extraordinary power to legislate with the consent of only one-third of council.
Coun. Josh Matlow, as soon as the mayor was sworn in at the start of the meeting, stood to accuse Tory of conspiring with Premier Doug Ford to “impugn this assembly’s privilege” by entrenching “undemocratic minority rule powers that are unprecedented in any democratically elected body anywhere in the world.” He insisted the mayor renounce his request for the new powers. Mayor Tory declined.
Speaking with reporters after the session, Matlow said he was certain the “vast preponderance of my colleagues are furious.”
There’s nothing new about Matlow opposing Mayor Tory. Nothing new about other council progressives crying loudly that he’s steamrolling them, either.
But he’s never before had a steamroller like this one.
And frankly, those most likely to get quickly flattened by the mayor’s new powers are people who’ve long been his closest allies -- members of his own executive committees have opposed the gentlest of density increases in the wards they represent. When Tory talks about overcoming opposition to rooming houses or zoning for more midrise missing middle housing, those are the people whose ears should be burning.
But it hardly matters what he plans to use these powers for, honestly. They are absurd and outrageous, a violation of even the very concept of local democracy. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator.
And as Matlow pointed out to reporters, rules about how the mayor of Toronto can govern are not about John Tory’s character. They are about the powers of that office, and the powers of city council next to it. The rules that apply to this mayor will apply to all mayors. Would Tory have wanted the last guy to be able to govern with one-third council support? Or the guy before him?
“Trust me not to abuse this grossly undemocratic statutory authority” does not cut it. Even if you claim you want it to do something important. Even if what you plan to do with it is important.
The thing about this whole “strong mayor” debate is that it’s gotten a lot of things all tangled up now in an ultimately toxic package.
There was a decent case to be made that the mayor’s office should be stronger than it has been. The mayor has the title of CEO of the city, and yet historically had little executive authority to manage the city’s staff and operations. I think there’s a legitimate interest in allowing the person directly elected by the entire city to actually serve as an executive -- not only does the office’s broad constituency justify it, but I think the people of Toronto expect the mayor to have that kind of authority. Powers of that nature were contained in Bill 3, which was passed into law months ago and came into force on Tuesday.
But that’s different than giving him more legislative power to dictate the business of city council. Or to overrule council, as Bill 3 also allowed. Or to sidestep the majority of council and legislate in the absence of its support -- new even stronger powers, contained in provincial Bill 39, which is still being debated at Queen’s Park. This goes several steps beyond reasonable, straight past debatable into the realm of the intolerable.
In his opening speech, Tory made impassioned pleas to deal with a mental health crisis that is claiming lives, a forceful pledge to work to fix structural funding issues in the city, an exasperated complaint about the province’s new housing changes that “will hurt our ability to get housing built.” There were a lot of sentiments most councillors could get behind, and many Torontonians could be inspired by.
And yet, how can you focus on that when the very democratic structure of Toronto city council is about to be overturned?
His long pleas for unity and proclamations of working with councillors were overshadowed entirely by his three-pronged test of when he would use new powers to legislate in defiance of the will of a majority of those very councillors: on matters of transit and housing of citywide importance, if there was a staff report (as there is for virtually any item before council), and if his sincere efforts to forge a consensus failed.
I may have been the only person in the council chamber to laugh out loud at that last part, but I could not help it: I’ll only overrule you in cases where you refuse to agree with me is hardly the reassurance Tory might have imagined it to be.
It is logic fit for a king. Thus begins the imperial mayoralty in Toronto. Not yet fully written into provincial law, but already overshadowing the business of city council.