Doug Ford, we hardly knew ye.
Mouthing platitudes on the campaign trail, the strategy worked: The old Ford dysfunction became a distant memory, right up to election day.
Whereupon the premier declared, “A new day has dawned in Ontario.”
Indeed it has. Now, the wake-up call.
All those ambivalent voters who held their nose for Ford never truly forgot the malodorous modus operandi. They just assumed a strong cabinet, rejuvenated caucus, resilient legislature and robust civil service could rein him in.
At this point, it’s almost beside the point. Ford has decided, his cabinet has colluded, has caucus has acquiesced, the opposition is outvoted.
Going forward, there’s a bigger question: What has the premier done to our democratic norms?
The Constitution is merely a piece of parchment. But our democracy is an unwritten code of conduct.
To understand the risk to Ontario’s democratic institutions, mind the premier’s public musings. Never mind a columnist’s calumny or lawyers’ disputatiousness.
Pay attention to Ford. Notwithstanding what the premier did with that contentious constitutional clause, it’s the why he did it that is so unforgiveable.
People (and experts) can disagree on whether his charter override is draconian; it’s the disproportionate usage on such a mundane matter that is so undeniably disturbing. That the premier chose to invoke the notwithstanding clause for such a nonsensical cause — a grudge match that, forgive me, rhymes with hissing match — is a gratuitous violation of our democratic norms.
Ford presumes to interfere in another level of government in the middle of a municipal election — halving the number of wards despite never mentioning such meddling when seeking his provincial (not municipal) mandate. What’s the motivation?
Why risk disrupting city hall, distracting the provincial legislature, and detracting from our democratic norms?
“My friends, we’re here to make sure that — we have a dysfunctional government in the city of Toronto — to turn it around,” he told MPPs in a confrontational and barely functional emergency session convened to overturn a judge’s ruling, after his legislation was declared unconstitutional.
Consider his most frequent, yet fearful, refrain: “We were elected by 2.3 million people to move forward and make changes in this province.”
Is he not now premier of all 13 million Ontarians — not merely those who cast ballots from his besotted base, or voters who held their noses? Is he merely leader of Ford Nation, or premier of our province?
Defending the notwithstanding clause — often dubbed the “nuclear option” by legal experts — Ford demonstrated his newfound command of the law: It’s part of his toolbox, and “if it wasn’t there to be used, it would not be there.”
A novel argument, unless an American president ever used that logic for his own (non-constitutional) nuclear arsenal: If it’s there, surely it’s there to be used, so why not press the nuclear button to break a deadlock? Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Elucidating his thinking, Ford argued that suspending charter rights is “wildly popular among the people … the only people fighting this move are a small group of left-wing councillors” (not how public critics such as Tory, a former Progressive Conservative leader, are typically described).
“We are prepared to use Section 33 (that clause) again in the future. We are taking a stand … I won’t be shy.”
Ford believes democracy is solely about elections, disparaging civil society as “activist groups,” insisting that judges should know their place. If government legislation is “being shot down by the courts, that’s scary. That’s disturbing.”
For the premier, suspending the charter’s protections was “a no-brainer,” and here’s why: “Let me tell you something — I was elected. The judge was appointed. He was appointed by one person, (ex-Liberal premier) Dalton McGuinty.” (In fact the judge was a federal, not provincial, appointment, as the premier’s office later acknowledged.)
Whatever one thinks of Ford’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause, never before used in Ontario, it is his demonization of the judiciary that is unprecedented in this country’s recent history. That not a single member of his cabinet or caucus dissented from his rhetoric is to their enduring discredit.
Since this column is dedicated to the premier’s sayings, it is only fitting that he get the last word — uttered during the legislature’s emergency sitting:
“As I’ve always said, a new day has dawned in Ontario.”
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn