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The Miller Legacy and the Lobotomization of Toronto Civic Discourse

Toronto civic politics has become a sorry sight over the past decade, culminating in the current mayoral race that is drawing to a close. The 2010 mayoral race was bad, ending in the election of a troubled, confused, angry man, far out of his depth in running Canada’s fifth largest political jurisdiction. Rob Ford came into office in four years ago with 47% of the popular vote on a platform that made little sense when subject to the most basic scrutiny; it included, for instance, the construction of $23 billion worth of new subways, paid for with $10 million in municipal program cuts.

The current race features two frontrunners with fiscal plans no more credible than the one on which Ford was elected four years ago. But another important thing unites Doug Ford and John Tory and distinguishes them from Olivia Chow: they understand the role they aspire to play on council in a non-legislative sense. Both Ford and Tory understand the role of the mayor to be one halfway between a CEO and a General Manager; where they differ is on the style of corporate management they wish to employ with their inferiors or junior managers, the city council. Ford favours an old-fashioned confrontational one; Tory would be a softer touch, more consultive and collaborative.

Since Rob Ford’s election, it has become increasingly popular to explain the failures in Toronto governance and the incoherent, lobotomized character of public policy debate as resulting from the moral failings of individual bad actors. No one is to speak of a systems failure. It’s supposed to be just a coincidence that the 2010 race was a contest between “Furious” George Smitherman, the cabinet minister with a reputation for volatile behaviour and a tyrannical management style and a man who kept—for some reason—having the police come to his house to investigate domestic violence reports. And it’s just a coincidence that the two men with the greatest thirst for this office are proud to identify as “buck stops here” bosses.

But the character of people attracted to a job and voters’ estimation of candidates’ suitability for it has a lot to do with the rules defining said job. And much of the crisis and failure surrounding the office of mayor can be traced, sadly, to the last competent person to hold it and the premier with whom that man partnered to restructure the city.

In 2005, David Miller began a major undertaking: negotiating a new governance structure for the city to accommodate the reality of its role as Canada’s fifth-largest government, representing a two and a half million people, providing transit, housing, childcare and a host of other services often associated with provinces not cities. I say “negotiating” because it would insult everyone’s intelligence to claim that Miller consulted Torontonians in order to establish his agenda. Certainly, there was a panel and a set of public meetings but these bodies reached pre-ordained conclusions, dictated from the mayor’s office. I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, besides the pointless and insulting deception that wasted my time and that of other participants.

At the time, Toronto was undergoing a series of budget crises; Miller was just short of a majority (23) of NDP- and centre-left votes to pass his major fiscal initiatives. Because of the lack of a formal party system, the de facto NDP-aligned caucus that backed Miller could not make lasting, stable agreements with centrist elements on council to create a stable, governing coalition. The prohibition on formal parties on council further hobbled efforts because the NDP minority government governing Toronto was, by law, prohibited from making its workings in any way transparent or accessible to voters. Instead, the actual practices of governing Toronto had to be actively obfuscated and driven underground, into an unaccountable, covert party system.

For Miller, there was a fork in the road. It was clear that endemic budget crises, brinksmanship and instability were not the way forward. Something had to change.

I intervened in the debate that followed. I worked with a small cross-partisan coalition of democracy activists like John Deverell, Linda Sheppard and John Thompson. Our argument was this: Toronto needed to grow up; its 45-seat legislature should function like a real legislature. Instead of operating covertly and, sometimes, illegally, Toronto’s municipal parties should become transparent and accountable to the public. The city should stop using the office of the Integrity Commissioner to actively prevent councillors from speaking out about issues outside their ward and instead, it should become important for councillors to offer not just a hyper-parochial laundry list of potholes to be filled but instead campaign by declaring clearly what their city-wide vision was on the major issues, who their allies were and how people across the city could work for that vision. While we were at it, we suggested that it might be useful to reform the voting system to represent non-ghettoized and city-wide communities. After all, for most people the whole point of living in a city with a good transportation is being able to form diffuse communities with people other than one’s neighbours. In such a system, direct election of the mayor would end and we would choose mayors the way we select prime ministers, premiers and school board chairs: through assembling a legislative majority.

Miller and his allies had another vision, one on which New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other “great” American cities had based their recent governance reforms: draining significant powers from the dysfunctional city council into the office of the mayor. In such a model, many of the crises of the Miller era could be averted. In this new model, the major city committees and commissions to which substantial powers are delegated, could be constituted by the mayor unilaterally, without resort to council vote.

At the time, we produced two studies, addressed Toronto city council and presented to the Ontario Provincial Parliament committee reviewing the deal Miller had negotiated with premier McGuinty. It all came to naught. New Democrats, organized labour and key civil society organizations sided with Miller; the solution to a dysfunctional legislature was not transparency and democratization but the transfer of power to an elected autocrat. Parties were not to be made accountable or reformed; they were to be rendered irrelevant by making council a place in which big ideas ceased to be discussed. The big ideas would be sorted out in the mayor’s head or in his hand-picked committees.

As we grew increasingly desperate in our attempts to mobilize progressives about this impending, anti-democratic centralization of power we became more teleological in our rhetoric. “What will happen when David Miller is gone and the city’s business elites buy themselves a new ‘strong mayor’ who will put these new tools to very different uses?” we asked. “Won’t people with ambitions as petty dictators be drawn to this position and purchase it with their private fortunes, as has happened in the US?” we asked. The response was as unintelligent and devoid of abstract thought as the Toronto political discourse it has generated. It was essentially, “but David Miller IS the mayor.”

The US study we often cited during this debate explains the emptiness of such a position: “The success or failure of a strong mayor depends a lot on experience and personality… No structure is going to substitute for good politics. Even though many of America’s great cities—among them New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco—have visible, charismatic strong mayors, [one] can never design on an individual…” This was ignored so we began making dire predictions. We predicted that, when Miller retired, his successor would be an aspiring petty dictator who was either installed by the city’s major real estate interests or who purchased the office himself out of a private fortune. As history shows, that plan was so ineffective nobody even remembers it.

Essentially, in exchange for enlarged powers in his second mandate, Miller and his allies lobotomized Toronto civic politics. Today, elections are about the vision of the one person seeking the mayor’s chair and little more than the list of potholes each city council candidate intends to fill and the order in which they are to be filled. The plurality of ideologies, identities and communities in Toronto are not to be represented in parties, programs and political movements; they are to be placed outside the discourse. Ideologies are to be denied and obfuscated. Communities are to be ignored or shoehorned into quaint, racialized ghettos with demarcated by twee multilingual signage. Identities are to be reduced to aesthetics and tastes to be celebrated in parades and not understood to have anything to do with political representation.

And the consequences continue to pile up. Today, the biggest, most vibrant governance reform movement in Toronto is RaBIT, the “Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto” whose main project is to make sure that the mayor is elected through instant runoff voting, the system used to elect the leaders of political parties at the national and provincial level. The quest to make extra-sure that Toronto’s chief executive enjoys is the first, second or third choice a bare majority of voters in the city. After all, as the only person allowed to run on a vision, platform or program, the mayor had better embody in his person at least a majority of the city.

The idea that a legislative assembly is a body that represents a representative diversity of ideologies and communities, in which coalitions are forged and deals made, that it should be the site where a jurisdiction thinks and talks aloud with itself to choose a vision for its future and a program for achieving it, are ideas on which Toronto has given up. Instead, each councillor, elected by a plurality of as little as 19% of the 40% showing up to vote in an arbitrarily-bounded polygon containing about 60,000 residents, colloquially known as a “ward,” is supposed to represent some mythical neighbourhood consensus, colloquially termed “the community.” No matter that most communities, be they cultural, ethnic, ideological or interest-based are geographically diffuse and reach across all or most wards in the city; the point isn’t to represent actual communities but instead to shut down meaningful debate with the empty signifier “the community.” This surrender under the leadership of David Miller, the decision to create an elected autocracy rather than a transparent democracy is what has produced the ugliness, stupidity and incoherence of the 2010 and 2014 Toronto elections.

As long as formal political parties are illegal and driven underground, as long as it is a breach of councillor integrity to express an opinion or position about an issue outside the arbitrarily-bounded, numbered polygon one is elected by a plurality of voters to “represent,” as long as major policy decisions are taken out of the hands of the city council and placed within the purview of one white man with the title “your worship,” Toronto political discourse and civic culture will remain the thin gruel voters are choking down today.

Director Sara Polley speaks usefully and intelligently of the city’s trauma and the curtailed possibilities for big or intelligent thoughts, for courage and creativity in her piece endorsing my preferred candidate, Olivia Chow. But her mistake is to trace it to the failure of virtue of one sad, drunk man. The trauma was already lying in wait, a poison pill left by her (and my, I’m afraid) 2006 mayoral candidate, an inevitable event once the office of mayor was “reformed” into one that would attract the likes the Ford brothers.

In all likelihood, the Toronto left will have another four years out of power to brood on their irrelevance and marginality. Perhaps during that time, we can consider the road not taken, the possibility of offering voters a different Toronto, one that trusts in the fundamental principles of democracy and seeks to provide the city’s communities with the institutional tools to represent themselves in its legislature and, through deliberation and negotiation, enact a political program that arises from a genuine and mature conversation about what Torontonians can do together.

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