Montreal and Toronto: the politics of change over status quo

Contrast the Montreal civic election, held yesterday, November 5th, with the last Toronto election held in November 2014, and you will understand why party politics is the only answer to the dysfunction with municipal politics in Ontario.

Valarie Plante, the new mayor of Montreal

Yesterday Valerie Plante became the first woman mayor in Montreal’s 375 year history. Not only that, her party, Project Montreal, took the majority of seats on council. Plante and her party ran on a platform of change. She advocated an expansion of the subway system, and a large investment in social housing, among other issues.

Denis Coderre, the incumbent mayor, took the election for granted. He appeared arrogant, ignored the mistakes of his administration, and brushed off the attacks from the opposition until the very last days of the campaign.

What is remarkable about the Montreal election, from the point of view of a Torontonian, is how the party system in Montreal facilitated fundamental change. Coderre, and his status quo political party named after himself, was decisively swept from power. The Montreal electorate wanted change and the election delivered it. That is a sign of a vital democracy.

That simply could not, and will not, happen in Toronto, and the reason is there are no political parties in this city. Every municipal candidate runs as an individual. They are ward healers in the worst sense and incumbents win over and over again.

I have written about this in my book, The New Urban Agenda, and more recently in an article called, “Toronto Politics and the Possibility for Change,” published in a book called The Rise of Cities, edited by Dimitrios Roussopoulos. Let me repeat some of the arguments I made because they are very relevant for those of us concerned about our city.

Since Toronto was incorporated in 1834 there have been 72 mayors. 45.8% of the mayors have been lawyers or other professionals, 43.2% were from business, the rest journalists and one a union organizer. On the present council only 31.8% are women. Despite the fact that today over 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities, only five, or 11.4%, are come from visible minority groups. Toronto council is not a good representation of the social characteristics of the city’s population.

But the most striking factor in who gets elected municipally in Ontario, Toronto included, is incumbency. In the 2014 Toronto election only one incumbent councillor was defeated out of the 44 members. Once a politician is elected it is very rare that they are defeated. Incumbent politicians have so much advantage over other candidates, that they have to do something very drastic to be defeated.

As a result, Toronto city council has become static, even ossified. Councillors tend to be old, white, male, and their votes on issues reflect their conservative political views. This does not signal a healthy democracy. Council is adverse to taking risks, or promoting new ideas. They vote in favour of development, and support cars over cycling. They are very reluctant to increase property taxes. They claim to support subways and transit, but only if another level government will pay for it. They admit that poverty, and affordable housing is a crisis, but they will not spend money to solve or ameliorate the problems.

Contrast Toronto politics to the dynamic change that happened yesterday in Montreal, and it is obvious that political parties at a municipal level make a difference. A political party, and the policies that they promote, give an identity to a group of politicians running for office. Voters are able to make a real choice based on their perception of the leaders and their policies.

In Toronto we have none of that, and so we have a politics that is uninspiring and unable to face change. It is a dysfunctional politics that will never provide the leadership we need.

(Thanks to Andre Picard, of the Globe and Mail, for his coverage of the Montreal election.)