Toronto votes tomorrow, and while we don’t know who the mayor will be, we know that the winner will likely have less than 50% support.
What does that mean for Toronto? What happens if a candidate wins with less than 50%, and a group of Councillors who do represent a majority disagree with the mayor on important issues?
We can look at a couple of recent situations, to seek advice and precedent.
a) Canada. Almost exactly two years ago, on October 14 2008, Stephen Harper’s Conservative party ‘won’ the election with only 46% of the seats, and only 38% of the popular vote. Either way you look at it (seats or votes), most Canadians did not want this guy in power. On December 1st, the other parties, representing a majority of Canadians did a strange thing. They agreed to work together to represent a majority of Canadians, but the proposal was quickly attacked from all sides. It was described as a ‘coup’, as an ‘attack on democracy’ and even as a ‘parliamentary crisis’. Of course, it was none of those things. But the negative accusations continued, and the coalition rode a short and bumpy ride into oblivion.
b) United Kingdom. Earlier this year I had the privilege of being in London during their national election. It was exciting and fascinating to observe the political similarities, and the political differences.
There were two primary differences that stood out. The first was that politicians in the UK wear prize ribbons. In North America, this is a practice usually reserved for cheese and animals. It was cute.
The second difference is perhaps more significant. In the UK, the public and the media both seem to have a basic grasp of how a government is supposed to function, and what the term ‘majority’ means. When the election results came in, the Conservative Party was in first place, but didn’t have a majority. That means they did not win. It was immediately understood, by all, that the three major parties would need some time to try and form a coalition, in order to govern with a majority. And it was also understood that the Conservative Party, with the most seats, did not necessarily need to be part of that Coalition.
Very few people accused anyone of staging a coup. There was no sense of ‘crisis’. It was just democracy at work. Amazing. What a difference from our experience, just a year earlier here in Canada. So different, that it’s embarrassing as a Canadian to have to admit it.
Why did Canada and the UK act so differently? And what does this mean for the new Toronto City Council?
The most obvious reason for the drastically different reactions in Canada and the UK, is the role of Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois. It was a very hard ‘sell’, for the Coalition to explain how exactly they were going to collaborate with a separatist party to form a national government.
But I think there is a more important reason. The biggest difference between the two scenarios, to me, is that the parties representing a progressive majority in Canada conceded defeat on election night, and then waited six weeks before attempting to publicly form a coalition.
In the UK, they didn’t skip a beat. The talk about coalition government and majority representation started on election night. There was no big victory speech from the Conservatives. And no big concession speech from the Lib Dems or Labour. Everyone understood that there was no majority, no winner.
So what does this mean for Toronto? We don’t have parties here, of course, so we can’t try and learn too much from either of these examples. But there is a lesson to be learned – and a valuable one: The way in which candidates and pundits reflect on election results, and the words we choose to use to describe the outcome, could have a huge impact on what the results actually mean.
Toronto City Council is not a Parliament, and there are no official parties or party leaders. So the mayor is the mayor. Whoever gets the most votes, is the mayor for four years – nothing can change that. But what can change, is the power that the mayor wields, and the public’s perception in regards to what obligation City Council has to implement the mayor’s agenda.
The language we use on election night will set the tone for the next four years.
We need to set the stage – right away – for a broad public acceptance of the basic concept of majority rule. If a majority of Councillors want to go in a different direction than the mayor, they better not wait weeks or months to announce it. That will sound like a takeover, a coup.
The dialogue, starting on Monday night, from as many candidates and commentators as possible, has to contain language such as this:
“The new mayor won this election fairly, and I congratulate him on the victory. But he did not receive a majority of the vote, so he shouldn’t assume that he has a mandate to implement his agenda without first consulting with each and every City Councillor. If a majority of City Councillors disagree with the mayor, then they will be in a position to put forward their own agenda, and I would hope the mayor would respect the democratic voice of Toronto’s voters, and support those proposals”.
Only by talking about “Representing the Majority” on Monday night, can a window of opportunity be opened for Council to operate independently of the mayor – if they so choose.
There’s an interesting difference between Ottawa and Toronto. In the federal government, a majority vote by the opposition against the government can trigger an election. No leader wants to be seen as the instigator of an election – so they tend to prop up the government for years. But at City Hall, there is no such thing as a snap election. The government cannot fall. There is no consequence to voting against the Mayor’s budget.
Theoretically, Council could choose to completely ignore the new mayor – and work on their own. That wouldn’t be an attack on democracy. Quite the opposite. It would simply be politicians implementing the will of the majority of Toronto’s voters.
All they need is 23 votes, and a lot of confidence.
And they can’t wait six weeks to think about it.
(note: with Instant Runoff Voting, it would be impossible for a Mayor to win with less than 50% support. Let’s change the system.)