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A Partisan Conspiracy

Are political parties the next step for Ford Nation?

Hospital Transfer Care

Like it or not, Ford Nation is the most powerful political movement to emerge in Toronto since the 1970s. And if you think it’s just some infantile personality cult destined to wither along with the electoral prospects of its frequently stupefied leader, Ford Nation has a surprise for you.

Already, shadowy forces closely linked to the movement are manoeuvering to rig the political system so that the most powerful political force in Toronto becomes permanent. In an ironic twist, these quiet counter-revolutionaries are openly emulating an innovative political strategy first used by the Communist Party of Canada.

But it’s a proven winner. And frankly, it’s hard not to admire the initiative. It certainly deserves notice.

So let it be noted then that in the dying days of 2013, an obscure group calling itself The Toronto Party filed an application with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice challenging the constitutional validity of a provincial law that prevents political parties from operating openly at the municipal level. It is an excellent case in constitutional terms, and more so because the remedy—amending the Municipal Elections Act (MEA) to let parties exist—is so simple and commonsensical.

If that happens, enormous new opportunities to build and consolidate political power will emerge. And the only group remotely capable of exploiting them is the most powerful proto-party Toronto has ever seen: Ford Nation.

The Toronto Party is no Ford Nation. It is a tiny group consisting mainly of party founder Stephen Thiele, an Etobicoke lawyer, and a few of his friends. But in their early days, they were true heralds, preaching hard-right fiscal austerity to suburban voters who had yet to hear the phrase “gravy train.” They were Ford’s party before Ford was. And although their current initiative has no formal connection with the mayor and his brother, it’s hard not to see it as a stalking horse.

Adding to the credibility of the challenge is the participation of lawyer Gavin Tighe, a colleague of Thiele’s at Gardiner Roberts LLP. Tighe most recently joined Thiele in a high-profile legal campaign to overturn the results of the latest federal election in Etobicoke Centre, on behalf of incumbent Borys Wrzesnewskyj. Although Wrzesnewskyj and his lawyers ultimately lost at the Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision, the case established basic jurisprudence on Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the right to vote—which is the same clause at issue in Tighe’s Toronto Party challenge.

More tellingly perhaps, Tighe is the lawyer who got Rob Ford off the hook for defaming Beaches restaurateur George Foulidis during the would-be mayor’s memorable “say anything” election campaign.

And let us not forget, as we dig deeper into the heart of this cozy conspiracy, the central role played by former Communist Party leader Miguel Figueroa, who first blazed the trail the Fordists now follow. Challenging draconian federal law that outlawed small political parties like his own in the 1990s, Figueroa won a resounding victory at the Supreme Court, resulting in basic law on the matter of voting rights and political parties in post-Charter Canada. The Toronto Party’s attack on the Municipal Elections Act, using Section 3 of the Charter, is a close variation of the Communist plot that overthrew the former Canada Elections Act.

And like that plot, this one makes a whole lot of sense—not only for powerful Ford Nation but even more so for its markedly less-organized opponents.

Current council chaos is an obvious invitation for some new form of organization, Tighe said in an interview, “and perhaps the answer is party lines.” In his view, the pursuit of open partisanship is a worthy non-partisan initiative. He says he’s not a member of the Toronto Party himself, adding, “I don’t even live in Etobicoke.” Common sense makes the case.

“Imagine the House of Commons if every member was operating as an independent entity,” he says. “You think it’s chaotic now—imagine what it would be like then.”

On its face, the ancient and paternalistic Municipal Elections Act would seem to violate all kinds of rights by banning municipal parties. Forming a political party is surely the most basic possible demonstration of free expression and free association. But Tighe’s application focuses on Section 3, and his client’s desire simply to see its name printed next to those of its candidates on municipal ballots.

“Everything in this society has a warning label on it except, I suppose, your municipal ballot,” he jokes.

But it’s not as if anyone is demanding such things be imposed.

“If a candidate wants to run independently, with no party affiliation, there’s nothing to prevent them from doing so,” Tighe says. “So why should there be a prohibition against someone who is running under a party affiliation from informing the voter of that?”

Gaining the right to print fringe-party labels on ballots might seem innocuous enough. Constitutionally, it is a “baby step,” Tighe admits, leaving the all-important question of fundraising for another day. But no one who has devoted as much effort to organizing city-wide slates as Rob Ford has will fail to notice the opportunity. Politically, a new name for an upcoming slate is the obvious next giant step in the evolution of Ford Nation.

The prediction relies in part on the remarkable success Ford has already had in changing the rules of the political game, especially his two victorious encounters with the same law that bans parties. His successful defence against conflict-of-interest charges that saw him briefly ejected from office made a shambles of the MEA clauses that purport to govern such things. Then Ford’s council colleagues graciously forgave him for spending $40,000 more than the MEA-legislated limit on his election campaign—happy to set a precedent that stands to benefit them all even as it mocks the law.

It’s also worth mentioning Ford’s significant contribution to the ongoing liberalization of Canadian libel laws, if only because it was Gavin Tighe who persuaded the judge it’s now okay to say anything about anybody without even caring if it’s true.

But that’s the way it is now. Ford and his Nation have changed everything, and are leading the way toward a new, sharply partisan municipal politics. Progressives might not like it, but they can hardly avoid following along.


  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    David Miller is and was opening called the “NDP mayor”, but only Fraud Nation stands to

    take advantage of parties entering the municipal arena? And not a mention of the HarperCons, with their unprecedented fund raising, pulling strings to favour Ford and whatever party might emerge under him?

  • vampchick21

    I’m not keen on the idea of political parties at the municipal level. I feel like at the municipal level, councillors should not be beholden to a political party the way MPs and MPPs are (thought people can run at those levels and independants). Municipal politics is different than provincial or federal.

  • Astin44

    Municipal politics has the most direct effect on its voters, and the lack of party lines is helpful in this regard. Take a look at the swing in votes during Ford’s term, many of those who were seen as Ford supporters have since shifted away from his policies and voting record because of their constituents views. Under a party system, they’d be under more pressure to vote with their party – be that Ford Nation or otherwise. Keeping councillors independent gives them more freedom to meet the needs/desires of their ward. It also leaves some aspect of hope for those not in the majority.

    Parliament seems disorganized, but the reality is that under a majority like we have now, there isn’t really much the NDP or Liberals can do to prevent the Conservatives from passing what they want. Sadly, modern politics don’t leave much room for compromise unless it’s required to get the necessary votes. I’d like to think that a proper debate in Council would sway a party in power to make adjustments to a plan, but a stubborn Mayor with guaranteed support wouldn’t see the point. Whereas in the past 3 years we’ve seen debates sway votes, bring changes to laws/budgets/etc., and change political fortunes.

  • ZachSwan

    If our councilors weren’t already acting along partisan lines (i.e. Adam Vaughn, poster boy for the NDPs left wing) I’d be concerned about the concept of introducing party politics at the municipal level. Instead, the lack of ability to openly associate to a party just lets these councilors hide their true positions from the public who, if they clearly knew what these people represent, might never support them.

    • OgtheDim

      So when left of centre people supported the initial Scarborough subway vote in league with centrists and right wingers against left of centre, centrists and right wingers….and then did it all over again a few months later but in a different composition, what was that?

      Face it, there are only weak partisan lines at city hall. Philosophical lines are stronger, but the strongest ones are to community interests, to being in power and to getting reelected..

    • bobloblawbloblawblah

      Anyone wishing know, let’s say, Janet Davis’ position on things can look up her voting record. Same goes for other councillors. You want everyone to have a label so that people can say “oh, NDP, bad” and go vote some other way. The system we have works well and even the hyper-partisan circus antics of the Fords haven’t wrecked it.

    • Matt Patterson

      Strange how the “poster boy for the NDPs left wing” had his candidacy opposed by actual NDP members like Olivia Chow, and was a vocal critic of David Miller.

    • regrettheerror

      “Adam Vaughn, poster boy for the NDPs left wing”

      Adam Vaughn is not an NDPer.

      Perhaps one benefit to parties at the municipal level would be a little more clarity for h8ers. Not that ignorant folks should be the driving force for such a change…

  • OgtheDim

    Its not a movement.

    All that has happened is a populist, who the press loves to talk about, took advantage of a lacklustre opposition and a desire for change.

    • HotDang

      Thirdly, there is no “current council chaos”. Council is running just fine.

      Good point. The invasion of the mayor’s personal life into public matters was chaotic but council did a decent job parrying that blow.

  • Dogma

    I LIKE the chaos. It’s the chaos that has made this whole goofy Ford era tenable. The fact that, as Astin44 states, council members haven’t felt fenced in by party ideology has allowed them to shift their votes as the Ford administration has gone of the rails. And frankly it allows them far more flexibility than the right, left or centre pen that the hyper-partisans out there seem to want to plug everyone into.

  • dsmithhfx

    I don’t see political parties as a good thing at any level of government, since they are basically used to subvert democracy and keep people ignorant. We need to elevate, not denigrate the supremacy of voters and our elected representatives.

    Instead, I would just like to see two, modest amendments to the municipal elections act:

    1. A person is limited to two terms on council, and one term as mayor. Not
    two consecutive terms, two terms in their life time, period.

    2. All Toronto politicians named “Rob Ford” or “Doug Ford” be immediately exiled to Detroit.

    • CaligulaJones

      Considering what my counselor Mary-Margaret McMahon ran into when she merely asked for a staff report concerning term-limits (hint: she was voted down…), we’re treading up a steep climb.

      Shouldn’t all 45 members of council need to declare a conflict of interest in such matters?

      Good idea for #1. How about expanding it, though: a life-time limit on all public service? Coupled with an iron-clad five year rule about becoming a lobbyist after serving.

    • bobloblawbloblawblah

      What you got against Detroit?

    • JanMac

      3. Shorten municipal election campaign periods to about 2 months.
      4. Institute a mechanism for ousting a mayor who disgraces his/her chain of office, city council, residents, etc.

    • Sean_Marshall

      I’m not a big fan of term limits – great councillors who do their job well shouldn’t have to be forced out, though I will concede that it does allow for some medicore or useless councillors to stick around forever thanks to the big incumbency challenge. If term limits were implemented, I would prefer three or four terms – it allows for good, strong politicians to rise through the ranks and maintains institutional memory.

  • bobloblawbloblawblah

    “Current council chaos is an obvious invitation for some new form of organization, Tighe said in an interview, “and perhaps the answer is party lines.”

    No, the answer is getting rid of the two Circus Clowns who introduced that chaos – Mayor Rob Ford and Other Mayor Doug Ford. Really, not all of us are that stupid that we’ll fall for this gag of using the Two Stooges to throw a wrench in the works and then cry “see, City Hall doesn’t work, perhaps we need political parties!!”. No, it worked fine until Dumb and Dumber showed up and we’re going to get rid of them this fall, thanks.

  • Dave

    The call for political parties at the municipal level is based on a series of false premises. First, that council is currently “chaotic” and needs more partisanship to restore order. Second, that people wouldn’t support the current slate of councilors if only they knew their party affiliations. The former presumes that the order that results from blind fealty to a political collective is somehow preferable to independent representatives acting in the best interests of their constituents. The latter suggests that if voters can’t attach one of the three main political “brands” to their local candidates, they don’t know what they’re going to get. Councilors’ voting records are readily available to anyone who bothers to look. It’s no secret where they’ve stood on things. A little bit of research, if one’s so inclined, can go a long way. We don’t need labels, and we certainly don’t need to be led by a legion of drones.

    Political parties are arguably the worst thing to happen to democracy. Just look at the Harper Tories. My local MP, sadly, is a guy named Joe Daniel, who specializes in two things: voting with Harper; and showing up for the ribbon cutting when a new Cora’s restaurant opens up. Our voices are not being heard in Parliament, because anything we have to say – pro- or anti-Harper – is secondary to The Party.

    • dsmithhfx

      “Councilors’ voting records are readily available to anyone who bothers to look.”

      Therein lies the rub.

      • Dave

        True. But resigning ourselves to the fact that voters are lazy by slapping a partisan label on all our municipal candidates still isn’t the answer.

  • tomwest

    There’s a big difference between allowing some parties but not others (as per the Communist/Federal case) and not allowing any parties.
    Further, no-one is stopping a Councillor from joining a politcal party – it just can’t say so on the ballot. If you care about party membership, ask your candidates.

  • tomwest

    Plus 400+ MPs is a different situation to ~40 councillors. (Or 4 councillors, in the same of some municipalities!)

    • Squintz

      Lets not get crazy here, the actual number of seats is 308 not 400+.

      • tomwest

        Typo – thanks!

  • OpportKnocks

    A couple of points;
    1. In Montreal and Vancouver, where political parties have existed for decades, they are successful and effective because they are local only, i.e. not affiliated with the official national or provincial parties
    2. For those who care to know, the current party membership or affiliation of all city politicians is easily determined. Some, like Mel Lastman were quite vocal when they switched to Liberal from Conservative and then back again.
    3. The current appearance of “chaos” in this administration is to a large degree “stage managed” for a simple reason. The Fords know that there is no such thing as bad publicity and that simple name recognition is enough to keep the vote from their base.
    4. Speaking of their base, don’t you find it interesting that the Fords never sought election in wealthy central Etobicoke, where they live. Those people are too smart to vote for those buffoons

  • Matt Patterson

    “Like it or not, Ford Nation is the most powerful political movement to emerge in Toronto since the 1970s.” This is a ridiculously alarmist statement. Shall we at least wait for the guy to win a second term before we talk about how powerful his support is? He has remained the least popular mayor since amalgamation. His base seems nowhere near as strong as the coalition of downtown residents, unions, and “creative class” workers that supported Miller and a broad section of council for two terms. And just compare the list of political accomplishments that Miller was able to push through vs. Ford. Despite a few minor things, Toronto is still very much the city built by Miller.

    • OgtheDim

      Yes but what was no longer is and that scares Mr. Barber into hyperbole.

      • Matt Patterson

        The Miller coalition hasn’t vanished into thin air. It still dominates most of council, and many other areas of public life. That’s why the Ford’s plan for the waterfront was DOA, as was the casino, and why we’re debating over what kind of public transit to build rather than whether we should invest in transit at all.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    We should be getting rid of parties at the provincial and federal level, or at least breaking up the big ones into more representational parties, not adopting them into municipal politics.