The Ethics and Optics of Representing the Majority. Reflections on Ottawa, London & Toronto.

Could progressives on Council find 23 votes and represent Toronto's majority?


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.)


4 responses to “The Ethics and Optics of Representing the Majority. Reflections on Ottawa, London & Toronto.

  1. Good one Mez. You’ve cut through all the rhetoric here and laid it bare. Together with your previous screed about “voting from the heart” You’re making me feel a hell of a lot better about not voting “strategically” (whatever that means).

  2. C’mon, Dave!

    Be nice and tell the folks the truth.

    The new Mayor picks the City Manager who approves the department heads (deputy ministers) of all branches of civic government in careful consultation with his new boss. Then, our new Mayor will head up the Striking Committee who chooses the Councillors (cabinet minister-equivalent representatives) that are ultimately in charge of those city departments and department heads and on the boards of the city corporations together with the Mayor who is an automatic member of them all.

    Depending upon how many people he places in his caucus this way, the Mayor always walks into city council with the odds of any vote going in his direction, because the ‘cabinet post’ interests of the members of the caucus are supported by the group. After that, not only he but every one of the members of his caucus are free to make deals with the other members of council to bring votes on side to even further ensure that pet projects will be passed.

    If you believe that whichever one of the front-runners that has been “elected” by the Toronto press for this city [because the voters believe the press about there being only five or six people running for Mayor, regardless of their suitability for office] can’t do pretty well whatever he wants to accomplish, you have vastly underestimated the power of the most powerful politician in city council.

    Mark State, 2010 Mayoralty Candidate
    -If you, dear reader, email me at


    I’ll reply with a copy of my ‘White Paper’; offering you a surprising, genuine alternative to the above three.
    Instead of using their negative techniques of raising taxes and cutting jobs and services to help allay the city debt, I offer methods of leading the city in interesting, positive and proactive ways towards a debt-free and healthy future.

  3. Hi Mark!

    The City Managers and the Department heads can’t do much without the support of Council .

    And yes, the mayor may head the Striking Committee, but he’s just one vote. And he only has about a dozen ‘cabinet’ positions to offer in exchange for votes. Not nearly enough to get the 23 votes he needs.

    I think it really depends on where the local seats go. Wards 26, 29, 42, etc. That will determine the direction of Council.

  4. Hello, Dave. I just noticed the reply to my comment. Thanks.

    While it’s still too bad that Toronto’s leaders are chosen by media editorial management in the name of sales rather than its citizenry, I’m glad that of the three final media-chosen candidates, Ford was the one the people finally chose to be Mayor, because in his thirst for reducing city spending he will be forced eventually to adopt different and better measures to accomplish those ends than the simplistic ideas he had when he was elected. For example, he recognizes the importance of getting rid of Miller’s Transit City insanity and using the general idea of improving the TTC; and in order to do this is thinking about installing some of Thompson’s crazy premature subway ideas (because in their thirst to make headlines, all kinds of ideas for Transit City were thrown out randomly by the media-chosen bunch in order to get votes from the electorate, while none of them actually tried –or maybe they were just incapable– to determine what would really work based upon Toronto’s existing public transit situation). When he realizes that the subway idea is also fiscally ridiculous, he will end up using less money to improve the existing service, and THAT’S what’s really needed. The kinds of dollars they can save just by increasing the existing adequate main line services during rush hours, converting to (electric) bus service, and establishing new routes and independent small bus services to the dozens of currently unserved, inadequately served, and small ridership communities so nobody has to travel more than two blocks from home or wait longer than 10 minutes to get a bus no matter where they live, will make a dent in the deficit and have more people taking the TTC than the deliberate plan by that bass-ackwards corporation to clog up traffic will. The TTC actually working well for its ridership will free up planners to imagine a future system without the stress placed upon them by an unwise rush culture and to install it carefully and in measured steps.

    (Unfortunately, putting Stintz in charge may hold things up a bit because she has come up through city council and therefore is incapable of thinking outside the box. She will completely miss the point that the TTC is less about its bottom line than insuring Torontonians get a good ride wherever they want to go until financial pressures change Ford’s position on how to save money and provide better services on our public transit.)

    Re your doubt that the Mayor can do whatever he wants in council, I’d like to provide some clarity about where that office holds its power.

    City councillors are hired by the people (the jobs are open, the people choose from among the media decisions about who will fill them) to represent their ridings. The Mayor is not hired to represent ridings, but rather to represent the city. So when it comes time to debate about what goes on in the ridings…or rather, according to the ridings what needs to go on there, the councillor of each riding defends, bargains, trades, wheedles, and demands his riding be given their due rewards by council. In these kinds of debates, it’s every one for themselves, (a truly wonderful and beautiful expression of democratic decision-making) and those councillors who are not directly applying for the same funding will choose sides in a vote. Only in the decision making for local ridings does the direction of council depend upon local seats; and the skill of the politicians holding those seats to represent well and deal-make. (Fortunately, those situations occur in a semi-insulated style and with enough velocity that council decisions cannot be made by the media, so most of the time the latter is content to report them after the fact if they think they can whistle up sales interest by using council goings-on to report on –rather than force– an outcome.)

    When the council’s topic at hand concerns the city as an entirety, the Mayor does the political deal-making by offering to be willing to side with one or another of the councillors in their daily representation of their ridings and sitting in council so he/she can vote. But there are 24 “cabinet positions”, not 12, and 24 ministers in caucus plus one Mayor allows the Mayor often to walk into council with 25 votes, or even more if he can form new divisions of government. (As Mayor, I would have created two new corporate divisions of government, perhaps three, to better represent the currently disenfranchised blocks of society that need to have the ear of council in a larger sense.) 25 out of 44 is a clear majority before things even come to a vote. That is why the Mayor is the most powerful politician on council; and there is no question when it comes to matters involving the city as an entity that it is he or she who decides “the direction of council”. What caucus agrees to vote upon takes place away from city council, and the deal making within the remainder of council also begins there. The saving grace of caucus is that it is the one committee where the Mayor is most likely to be able to express just one vote, even if those occasions are rare due to his official influence over who sits in caucus as well as everywhere else.

    Despite the craziness of some of Ford’s ideas, like cutting the council size in half (which hopefully caucus will argue him out of because it’s inane), simply because he is the Mayor he has a far greater chance of pulling off whatever he has promised his voters than any other council member.

    In addition to the dozen departments you may be referring to (whose department heads the Mayor prefers in consultation with his City Manager), there are the four chairs and deputy chairs of the community councils, representation on a number of operational Toronto corporations such as Hydro, the TTC or Waste Management, Housing, Police Board, etc., etc., representation on 59 standing committees, and boards established to manage ongoing civic projects and initiatives. There are plenty of plum positions that the Mayor is in a prime position to manage appointments for using the striking committee and spinoffs from those appointments. And by requirement and tradition, the Mayor is besides an official member on every one of those groups if he chooses to attend, and can wield great power in any of them if he desires to exert his influence, even changing their membership complement.

    The restructuring of this huge responsibility to management by a mere 22 councillors is one of the reasons reducing council is a wrong-headed idea, and once Ford feels the enormity of the job he will change his mind about it. The money saved would be a drop in the bucket and the loss of services will be enormous if councillors’ responsibilities are farmed out to committees. That’s why, when granting the city its Charter, the provincial government recommended doubling the number of seated members of council to 88 from its current 44. I didn’t approve of that idea, by the way, because two councillors per ward might create cracks in the service system in the wards that people with problems could fall through due to a propensity of people with shared responsibilities to divide up their portfolios.

    Good to be in touch with you again, Dave.

    Mark State

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