Should Toronto fight for the right to Party?

As part of the Better Ballots dialogue, we’re exploring the pros and cons of fourteen possible reforms to Toronto’s municipal elections. One of those options is the introduction of municipal parties to Toronto.  Personally I’m split 50/5o on the issue.  I’ve heard some very good arguments in favour, and I’ve also heard some convincing arguments to the contrary.

In this post, guest writer Devin Alfaro looks at municipal parties in Montreal.  How did they start?  What role do they play?  What are the benefits, and what are the drawbacks?  What can other cities, like Toronto, learn from Montreal’s experience?

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Devin Alfaro is a Montreal activist who is passionate about sustainable, inclusive urbanism. An Urban Studies graduate of McGill University, he is currently working in the community sector and is actively involved in municipal politics. He is a regular contributor with Spacing Montréal, where he comments on Montreal politics and urban issues.

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Political Parties in Montreal


On Monday, I wrote about Montreal’s unique borough system. Another aspect which distinguishes Montreal (and other large cities in Quebec) from many other cities in Canada is the presence of municipal political parties.  In fact, City Council is based very closely on the British Parliamentary model, complete with question period, an official opposition, and party whips. Parties have existed since the 1950s and starting in the 1970s they were given official status by the provincial electoral law. The presence of parties is a bit more controversial than boroughs, but at this point it’s a well established part of Montreal political culture.

The presence of parties on the municipal scene started in the 1950s. During this period of time Montreal had been rocked by a series of corruption scandals in which collusion between the police, municipal government, and organised crime were revealed. In response to this crisis, a group of anti-corruption activists lead by Jean Drapeau created the Ligue d’Action Civique (later the Parti Civique) which ran a slate of candidates in the 1954 elections on a clean government platform.

Drapeau won the mayorship and with the exception of a one term interlude would remain mayor until 1986. The sort of partisan politics that Drapeau brought to City Hall was far from democratic. Membership in his Parti Civique was by invitation only and candidates were hand selected. Drapeau always managed to win large majorities on City Council and he ran the city with an iron fist.

Over the decades municipal parties have come and gone. The biggest problem with political parties in Montreal is that most of them haven’t really been parties in the traditional sense. They could better be described as electoral machines constructed around mayoral candidates. They have weak membership bases, poor ideological focus, and they are defined by who their leader is.

Consider this: no political party in Montreal has elected more than one mayor. The Parti Civique of Jean Drapeau was built by him, and when he retired from municipal life it floundered for a few years before finally closing shop. The party that succeeded the Parti Civique in power also no longer exists. Instead of serving as a way for citizens to get involved in the political process, they serve as vehicles for a mayoral candidate and his or her “team”.

Not all is bad, though. There have been progressive political parties that break this mould. The earliest example was the Montreal Citizen’s Movement (MCM) which was founded in the early 70’s in response to the Drapeau administration. This progressive party built a broad coalition of community activists, trade unionists, left-leaning Quebec nationalists, and anglo NDP supporters. Unlike it’s opponent, the Parti Civique, the MCM was a grassroots party with an active membership, district associations, and strong links to civil society. The MCM would go on to win power in the late 80’s.

More recently, there is Projet Montréal, the new torchbearer of progressive ideals on City Council. It’s picked up the old pro-democracy and pro-social justice positions of the MCM and added a heavy emphasis on sustainable development. Instead of being founded to support a particular mayoral candidacy, both these parties started off with ideals and a desire to change the city for the better. Like the MCM did, Projet Montréal provides a way for progressive people to get involved in municipal politics and serves as a vehicle to unite rather disparate groups around common goals.

For better or for worse political parties are now an undisputed part of the political scene in Montreal. They have effected how politics are done in a number of ways. Here are some of them:

A more confrontational political climate. The Montreal City Council is based on the Westminster parliamentary model, a system which encourages confrontation. The lines are clear: there are the governing benches and the opposition benches. The government governs by itself, and the opposition criticises and systematically votes against the government’s proposals. This can lead to unproductive partisan bickering, and prevents collaboration. On the up side, from day one there are people who’s job it is to keep the mayor accountable and hold his feet to the fire.

More competitive elections and higher turnover. There are never any acclamations since there are always at least two parties presenting full slates of candidates. Also, sitting councillors are more commonly defeated as a result of the rise and fall of the popularity of their parties. In the last election a number of high-profile, well-established councillors in the central city neighbourhoods were beaten into third place because they were running with Tremblay’s party.

City-wide priorities over local priorities. Councillors have to follow a party line and as a result are less free to represent their district’s particular interests. This can mean less effective representation, but it also means that NIMBYism is a lot less of a problem. Parties need to look out for their interests on a city-wide basis and this can help facilitate having a broader perspective. Montreal’s borough system partially corrects for this by allowing for some decisions to be made at the neighbourhood level.

The mayor is firmly in charge. Since political parties have existed in Montreal the mayor’s party has always won a majority of seats on City Council. This means that the mayor is firmly in control, since he is more or less assured to get what he needs passed by Council. It does sometimes happen that a mayor will be made to back down on a certain issue by his own caucus, but this is rare. On the positive side, when a party makes a campaign promise, if they win they’ll actually have the ability to make good on it. Accountability is much clearer, and at the end of mayor’s term if he hasn’t delivered, he has no one else to blame.

In my opinion political parties have major advantages and major disadvantages. For progressives they provide a way for us to build durable coalitions and organize for power more effectively. They do, however, introduce certain perverse dynamics such as the centralization of power and constant confrontation at City Hall. I don’t see the presence of parties as a problem, but rather the culture that has developed around them. In Montreal we need to move away from the strict imitation of the House of Commons that we currently have. Parties can be useful, but hyper-partisanship damages the political process. For people in other cities, that would be my greatest word of caution. Is there a way to have parties without the negative effects? I honestly don’t know.

Recent developments in Montreal give hope that some changes might be on the horizon. Newly reelected mayor Gérald Tremblay has included opposition members on the city’s Executive Committee, the municipal cabinet. This is the first time that this has happened since parties have existed in Montreal. He has also committed to transferring more power to City Council’s multi-party committees, instead of centralising decisions at the level of the Executive Committee. It remains to be seen if these changes will actually have an effect on the way politics are done in Montreal.

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Join us at a Better Ballots Town Hall meeting (April 26 or 27) to talk about municipal parties and thirteen other options for electoral reform in Toronto.

What do you think about parties? Please share your thoughts below…

9 responses to “Should Toronto fight for the right to Party?

  1. Pingback: Borough Councils: One way to give power back to neighbourhoods « Mez Dispenser

  2. The writer asks: Is there a way to have parties without the negative effects? My response is Yes, with a caveat. It is at least theoretically possible to have parties without rigid party discipline. One need only look south of the border at the U.S. system to see the absence of rigid party discipline. Could this type of U.S. style democracy work in Canada; do we have an instantaneous negative reaction against all things U.S. political? I too offer no opinion, I just ponder that this is a possible. The question I end with is, what are the negative effects of the U.S. system?

  3. Great to find out about Montreal’s party system. Merci Devin!

    I’d be really interested in comparing this to Vancouver’s system. There must be some significant variations in political culture and how the party system plays out on the left coast….

    Personally, I have mixed feelings on the issue of parties in Toronto. On the one hand, I love the idea of having cohesive multi-candidate platforms that speak to common issues across the City. And I think parties could be held to account around platforms and might be a mechanism for the involvement of more people of colour, women and immigrants on city council. But I also worry about a greater influence of backroom party politics on the electoral system… It’s already there of course, but it would be a shame if municipal parties were simply farm teams for federal or provincial politics – and rigid partisanship. Currently, I am supporting a municipal candidate right now where there are Liberals, Tories and NDPers on the campaign team and I think that is fantastic . While everyone doesn’t necessarily agree on every issue, I think it creates a healthy and vibrant dialogue – and a better candidate.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Michael and Doug! : )

  5. My first blog posting on Dave’s blog – and I have corrections to make!

    First is the annoying typo.

    More importantly, on further reflection there’s lots of positives about the US system and I may have come across too negative beforehand. Most notably, in the US each politician’s vote is subject to change, while through the party system voters at least get a starting point that they can reasonably understand (e.g., Democrats are X, Republicans are Y). Individual politicians are like variations on a theme.

  6. Michael – I fixed your typo. ; )

  7. insertrealname

    I agree with Doug’s comments re. municipal politics under a party system becoming a small-scale version of the kind of party-political dysfunction that marks Canadian politics at the provincial/federal level.

    Specifically, I doubt that parties would necessarily introduce a more long-term or wider perspective into how planning & decision making are already done (or fail to be done) at the municipal level.

    They would use a lot of their energy and attention in simply ensuring their own development and survival, rather than the public interest.

    Since municipal elections often have low turnout rates (and such party-political behaviour won’t encourage an increase), there would be little public punishment and disincentive for such self-preserving behaviour.

    One of the current limitations of Toronto municipal governance is that there is little to be gained by councillors who want to think and act with the whole city in mind: they are too much like little viziers of their own little provinces. The big picture gets completely blotted out by local concerns (except, maybe, at budget-approval time).

    So my proposals are a hopelessly nerdy ones perhaps:

    First, in lieu of parties, change the electoral system so that *all* councillors are elected by some kind of vote that mixes preferential ballots from all across Toronto as well as their own neighbourhood. In other words, candidates would have to make some kind of impression both city-wide and in their local community. (Goodness knows how to organize this: perhaps some kind of double-ballot preferential system? I’ve no idea.)

    This might also have some effect on how the contest is portrayed in the media: instead of obsessing with a few mayoral front-runners, the councillor races might get a bit more attention.

    Second, ensure that the Mayor is elected by Council, and directly responsible to Council.

    This encourages at least two desirable things: any Mayor must know the ropes (and the accountability) of the day-to-day municipal interaction that every councillor is exposed to;
    Second, all elected councillors have to have some kind of public debate about the kind of Mayor they want to see leading the city: what ideas and plans do they want to see implemented? What kind of future for the city?

    In other words, right from the start, cooperation in council is required, as well as explicit thinking about our city’s common, communal future, not on rigid party lines–which is not to say there won’t be distinct camps on any given issue, but those positions will be taken based more on the matter at hand, less on the basis of political church.

    If some kind of forward-thinking cohesion in city council can develop, then it can legitimately claim more power from the provincial government–right now in Ontario governance, municipalities seem to be treated like some kind of wayward minor, and that has to change too.

  8. Please no. I think one of the best things about Toronto’s system is that there are no parties.

  9. Perhaps another idea rather than the entry of the divisiveness of party politics at the municipal level would be to move in another direction and consider eliminating the provincial governments and have the federal government take over education, healthcare, and other public welfare benefits and goods that citizens consider to be entitlements from birth to grave.

    With administrative duties being transferred to municipal levels of government thus further reducing representative and political overlap. Provincial taxes could be eliminated, replaced with slightly increased federal tax rates: the added efficiency of removing a level of government if handled correctly would translate into an overall savings for taxpayers.

    Provinces exist financially largely because of our current system of transfer payments from the federal government paying for the greatest portion of education, healthcare, and other entitlement programs as our federal government largely gets to set the mandate under which they are delivered anyway as.no matter what provincial leaders advocate, on the behalf of their citizens, ultimately the national interest usually gets the final say.

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