Talk of democracy is in the air. From the dwindling protest camps in Hong Kong and the coffee shops in post-election Brazil to towns across Scotland, conversations are taking place on what democracy should look like today. In Canada, the parliamentary electoral system often leaves a feeling of distance between voters and those who wield power in Ottawa.
Canadian MPs are bound by a strict party discipline, which means that by and large they get their orders from party leaders and vote as a unified bloc. That is why Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who commands a majority government, can unilaterally send CF-18 fighter jets to Iraq to combat Isis over the objections of opposition parties. That is an affront to democracy, some cry.
Well, at a municipal level, democracy can feel like a more intimate affair: an affair in which Torontonians will take part in two-and-a-half weeks in the city elections. There are technically no political parties so councillors vote as representatives of their ridings. Sounds like an Athenian democratic dream but ask any Torontonian and they’ll tell you it’s more of a nightmare. Since the political amalgamation of Toronto, which united the downtown core with the surrounding suburbs, things have only gotten worse. Ironically, this so-called unification has only led to suburbanites resenting city slickers for using their tax dollars on glitzy projects of little relevance to them.
For years the city has been gridlocked over infrastructure issues: subway or light rail, what to do with the Gardiner Expressway, among others. A family friend who went to university here 20 years ago visited recently and remarked – in astonishment – that the trains and routes look exactly the same now as they did when she was a student. For a city that’s one of the fastest growing in North America, that’s not a good thing.
In fact, gridlock has a long history in Toronto. An architecture historian who has closely studied public projects in the city told me that there were plans to build a grand boulevard stretching from Union Station to University Avenue. The project was initiated in the early 20th century but political bickering left it incomplete. The only structure that remains of the master plan today? Union Station, which coincidentally is undergoing a major overhaul right now. Unsurprisingly, it’s become a rather contentious issue in city politics because of its huge price tag that seems to keep getting heftier.
Gridlocks and impasses like these cost the city as much as CA$11bn (€7.7bn) a year. That’s a lot of money for a lot of talk time and not enough action, in my opinion. If Toronto’s democratic history tells us anything, the real challenge for whoever becomes Toronto’s next mayor will be to unpick the gridlock where so many have failed before. This raises the question: why would anyone want the job in the first place?
Jason Li is a researcher and writer in Monocle’s Toronto bureau.