Tag Archives: municipalities

Is Machiavelli relevant to today’s municipal politicians?

Niccolo MachiavelliAre the political theories of a 16th-century Italian diplomat relevant to today’s municipal politics? Yes, assuming you know and have read his works, not just the bumper-sticker over-simplification that says, “The end justifies the means.”

Actually, Machiavelli never wrote those words. That’s a modern condensation. It’s also an erroneous paraphrase of what he wrote in The Prince, because it overlooks a lot of his comments on the effect of some types of behaviour on the honour and reputation of the ruler. Machiavelli stressed the cause and effect of a ruler’s actions on his power, his honour and his reputation. He had little interest in rulers who abused their power.

Machiavelli did not advocate cruelty or violence towards subjects, and was highly critical of rulers who abused their power. He argued that mistreatment of people would not win loyalty, trust, or obedience. But, he said, expedient methods could be justifiable if there are clear and measurable benefits from those acts.

Machiavelli today is also known from the adjective “Machiavellian,” which suggests something evil, underhanded, and sneaky in politics. But that, too is a false impression.

Shortly after its publication, both the Catholic and Protestant churches condemned The Prince. It was even banned in Elizabethan England and the Pope placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559. The churches believed Machiavelli’s works fostered political and moral corruption because presented politics outside the church’s control and influence. Machiavelli did not believe in the divine nature of power, and this challenged the churches’ authority. Hence the demonization, and the attribution of duplicity to the term “Machiavellian.”

Many people recognize that he wrote Il Principe, (in English: “The Prince,”) but few municipal politicians can lay claim to actually having read it. More’s the pity because it has a lot of lessons for today’s politicians.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility, with the mayor at the top and the nobility squabbling of their portion of the power below. The mayor plays the role of Machiavelli’s ruler of Florence: a strong state trying to control the client states, some of whom are allies, others are resentful and want their independence. Uppity or subservient… doesn’t that sound like many on today’s municipal councils?

Machiavelli wrote, “…the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves the toothing for another.”

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility.

Sounds a lot like political incumbents, doesn’t it? One estimate suggests incumbents have a 40 percent better chance of getting re-elected than newcomers have of getting elected. Every one of us knows of incumbents who stay in office from inertia, rather than by great acts or by taking brave and principled stands. But Machiavelli warned against complacency and stresses the need to win the public’s love and gratitude. Never take the electorate for granted is a subtext message in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s principalities – indeed most of the nations of Europe – were in constant conflict, often open warfare with one another. Aren’t today’s municipalities also in conflict with one another? Not through armies and war, of course. We’re more subtle than that.

Sure municipalities have regional agreements, share some resources, and cooperate where it is expedient to do so. But every municipality is competing for visitors, for growth, for provincial funding, for new industries and businesses, and for reputation. There isn’t a municipality in Canada that wouldn’t see its neighbours plowed into the ground if it meant the municipality was able to attract a major automobile plant.

Yes, I think Machiavelli has a lot of relevance for today’s municipal politicians. I have a new book in the making about this, so stay tuned.

The Drummond Report: economic disaster or salvation?


“It’s not all doom and gloom,” quips Rick Mercer in this video. “Drummond predicts the province could still turn things around, if it acts now, and no one gets sick, needs a job, or educates their children, for the next… ever.”

The Drummond Report – from the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services headed by economist Don Drummond – was released last week. It’s a sweeping, 529-page, brick-thick study of Ontario’s fiscal policies and structures, with 362 recommendations about how the province should run its public service. It reads like the findings of an inquest after a particularly gruesome series of industrial accidents. Perhaps it is.

If followed, those recommendations will have a huge impact on municipalities and taxpayers (Drummond says government spending must decrease 16.2% every year for every man, woman and child in this province). Adopting them is the only way, says the report’s author, to get the province out of its $16 billion deficit before we become North America’s Greece with a $30 billion deficit.

Drummond says we must accept all of his recommendations or face financial meltdown. All, not just some. We can’t pick from them like a smorgasbord, he says. But that’s just what Premier Dalton McGuinty has already done, with his recent announcements about what he won’t implement or cut.

I’m not sure if that’s McGuinty’s way of telling us he doesn’t have the backbone to implement unpopular recommendations, or he’s just dancing one last song with political popularity while the ship sinks, or that we should buckle up because the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train called The Deficit. But maybe, he’s actually wiser than we normally give him credit for being.

In a few short weeks, the report has spawned a small, but intense industry of commentators who have weighed in on the pros and cons of Drummond’s recommendations. Rex Murphy, for example, penned this scathing comment in the National Post:

With the exception of the writings of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah at their bleakest, flavoured with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft on the days when that lightless mind was wrestling with a migraine, the recent meditations of Don Drummond on Ontario’s fiscal situation set the standard for prose that vibrates with gloom and foreboding.

To be fair, the chances of any National Post writer making even the most remotely backhanded compliment about anything even vaguely Liberal is akin to my chances of winning the lottery, so we have to take his comments in the conservative spirit in which they were written: a self-righteous, anti-Liberal, “I told you so.”

And as expected, the Toronto Star weighed in against it, albeit from another side. Thomas Walkom wrote:

That the rich will fare best under Drummond is true by definition.
The well-to-do depend less on government programs than the poor and middle class. That is a fact. Drummond’s call for government to roll back the Ontario Child Benefit will hurt poor families who receive the subsidy. It will not affect the rich who do not.
Nor are the wealthy being asked to chip in through higher progressive taxes. Drummond did advocate that some taxes, including those on property and gasoline, be hiked. He even wants a special tax (he calls it a user fee) levied on rural parents who bus their children to school.
But these kinds of regressive taxes hit the poor and middle class proportionally harder than the rich. A surtax on high-income earners could correct that bias. But Premier Dalton McGuinty specifically told Drummond to stay away from such remedies.
Add to this the real world of politics, a world in which some groups have clout and others do not.

AMO – the Association of Municipalities of Ontario – has weighed in with an early comment, noting:

AMO is anxious about the potential for altering the upload agreement and the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund. The Commission is recommending to delay planned uploads of provincial costs from the municipal property tax base by two years.

Translation: Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals promised to reverse the downloading of services and expenses onto municipalities perpetuated by Premier Mike Harris. McGuinty has been undoing it, albeit slowly. He reiterated his promise to continue the uploading at the annual AMO convention, in 2011, and again at the ROMA/OGRA convention in 2012. He promised to have it all reversed by 2018. Drummond suggests pushing that to 2021, which means additional years of expenses to Ontario’s municipalities (you, the taxpayers will pay either way).

AMO credited Drummond with several worthwhile recommendations in the areas of social programs and housing, health care, infrastructure, real estate, electricity, full-cost pricing for water and wastewater treatment services, the justice system, and improving the arbitration system. However, why these recommendations are worthy and others are not is not explained

AMO executives may not want to stray too far into critical commentary because it could alienate the organization from the government, and that would backfire on municipalities. Still, even if it is preliminary, the response noted above is annoyingly vague. I hope to see a much more comprehensive analysis from AMO in the near future, one that looks more closely at what the recommendations mean to municipalities.

Exhaustive as it may appear to some, the report has gaping holes in it. One area, for example, is in the labour arbitration process. Municipalities are frequently burdened with high salary agreements through arbitration. But the executive summary in the report says, “The interest arbitration system has come under increasing scrutiny and attack. We do not find the system to be broken, though it can be improved.” To any municipality trying to wrestle with the escalating costs of, say, their fire service, that statement is a mere nod and a wink to a seriously broken and very expensive process. School boards face the same issue with local teachers’ unions.

Like Walkom pointed out, the provincial tax structure was overlooked and most of the recommendations will have the greatest effect on those with the lowest incomes. One example is full-day kindergarten (which the right-wing QMI media’s writer, Christina Blizzard, caustically calls “free baby sitting”). Working parents who struggle to make ends meet depend on all-day kindergarten to enable them both to stay in the workforce. It’s not a handout.

Drummond’s recommended cuts could slash another 250,000 jobs from the provincial workforce and reduce the provincial economy by billions of dollars. McGuinty may be right by not leaping into these waters without carefully looking at what’s lurking in their depths first.

To the right who view every government program with suspicion, Drummond didn’t go far enough and the cuts should be made regardless of their impact on lower-income and working-class families. To the left, Drummond’s recommendations are a recipe for disaster that will decimate our workforce, our economy and cripple our already struggling labour force with additional costs. These are simplistic views. We’re in a mess and we need to fix it, but Drummond’s report is not the sole answer. It’s a start and some of what he recommends will be necessary, but not all. So Dalton may be right to proceed with caution and not simply dive in without some serious thought to what has to be done.

Here’s an idea Drummond didn’t offer, but I put forward for your consideration. Once upon a time, the province used to charge licencing fees for vehicles based on their number of cylinders. That was dropped, inexplicably. Why not return to that system and put the extra revenue directly into infrastructure spending? Or perhaps base the license fee on the vehicle’s gas mileage ratio? It would serve the double duty of discouraging sales of gas guzzlers, which will only help our environment.

Mayor Ford’s troubles a lesson for all Canadian mayors

Toronto Mayor Rob FordOn days like this, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford must be banging his head against the wall. This week he – and indeed every Canadian mayor – was reminded that a mayor’s powers are limited to a single vote.

That point was driven home when Councillor Joe Mihevc asked for a legal opinion on Ford’s unilateral decision to kill the Transit City plan, in December 2010, without consulting council. Mihevc also claimed Ford did not have the authority to sign a memorandum of understanding with the province to spend money from the Transit City project to put the proposed Eglinton LRT entirely underground.

The legal opinion suggested Ford did, indeed, overstep his authority. The province, too, has indicated that any agreement must be approved by the “governing body,” not just the mayor. The mayor is not an autocrat, no matter what he thinks his role is.

Unlike mayors in the USA, in Canada mayors have no additional power, and certainly no veto, that are not granted to any other member of council. Much of their authority is assumed by position or given by respect, rather than granted through legislation. They may act as chair, set the agenda, and control their own office budget, but can do little else outside the context of the democratic process. Unilateral decisions are not permitted.

In Canada, municipalities are children of their respective province, a role descended from the original British North America Act and as out of touch with current times as the BNA would be today. Cities, even our largest, have no independence as many American and European cities have. In every province, legislation defines what power, what authority and what responsibility municipalities enjoy. This antiquated – almost medieval – hierarchy puts our major cities on the same legislative level as any hamlet or village. And it puts every mayor on the same level as any other member of council: one vote, no veto.

Whether this is good or bad governance is a debate that provincial municipal organizations should be pressing on the provinces. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities should be demanding the federal government examine necessary changes to federal laws to facilitate provincial changes.

Author Gord Hume discussed this and related issues in his recent book, Taking Back Our Cities. Unfortunately for municipal politicians in Canada, Hume is a lone voice; provincial and federal municipal associations are unaccountably silent on the changes needed (and long overdue) in the provincial-municipal relationship. In fact, there seems to be a slightly too-cozy relationship between the provinces and their respective provincial associations. Association executives exhibit a tad too much reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ and upset that relationship.

The fight with Ford is not about transit dollars. It’s about authority and governance. I can sympathize: in the previous Collingwood council, I argued similarly against what I perceived as overstepping mayoral authority. It’s somewhat understandable that mayors assume they have more significance than their fellow council members because they are elected at large and, at least in Ford’s case, with a larger vote count that councillors get. But that significance is not defined in any legislation. They cannot act alone.

In the Globe and Mail, Patrick White writes,

The controversy has sparked a debate about whether he did or didn’t overstep his authority under the City of Toronto Act and, subsequently, whether it is Mr. Ford or the legislation that needs to change.

The Act may well need revision, but until such time as the province agrees to do so – and the province is very reluctant to relinquish any of its authority to municipalities, regardless of any election promises or claims to partnerships – Ford is the one who has to change.

Do some or all Canadian mayors need powers comparable to what their American counterparts enjoy? That would be a big debate, a fascinating and probably contentious one. It’s not likely to happen under the current Ontario government. None of the parties have expressed more than bland platitudes about the municipal-provincial relationship; their leaders usually smugly calling us “partners” without offering us a seat at the table for any decision that affects municipalities. In the province’s eyes, that partnership is a subservient role and municipalities have to tug their virtual forelocks in obedience.

As for the federal government, it won’t act until the provinces pressure it to do so. That day will come only when our municipal organizations show the spine to fight for a renewed, revised relationship. That will not happen, I suspect, until Hell freezes over.