Recalling politicians: there are pitfalls

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday June 05 2013 in Opinion
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By PATRICK HUNTER

 

The problems we have with Mayor Rob Ford have triggered a great deal of discussion about recalling politicians – essentially firing them – before their term ends. I have also suggested that the provincial government I hope is taking note of these difficulties and that they should come up with a solution since the city is, as the saying goes, a creature of the province.

 

Premier Kathleen Wynne has indeed commented on the matter. She has not indicated that she will – and some wonder whether she can – step in to resolve the matter by removing the mayor or, in some way, ensure that the business of the city is not impeded.

 

Rob Ford was elected mayor with 47 per cent of the vote or by over 380,000 voters. It is a considerable mandate, especially because he was elected directly by the voters. In other elections, at the provincial or federal level, neither the premier nor the prime minister is directly elected. The party’s candidates are elected and the most seats won places that party’s leader in the position of being asked by the Lieutenant Governor or the Governor General to form a government. Hence, we get Doug Ford’s referring to the “unelected premier” in rebuffing the Premier’s comments.

 

The municipal elections in Ontario now recur every four years. Elections are by design the opportunity for the electorate to give the governments a performance review. If we are dissatisfied, we vote to elect someone else, in this case, as mayor. The next opportunity to make that choice in Toronto is 2014.

 

Most legal specialists and other commentators seem to agree that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to remove Ford from office. He must be convicted of a crime or he must voluntarily resign. Those seem to be the only options. He has indicated that he has no intention of resigning.

 

British Columbia is the only province or territory in Canada which allows recall. It is a process that, in many ways, seems like an election. To remove a member of the BC Legislature, someone must submit an application to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) stating, among other things, the reason for the recall. The CEO may then issue a petition to the applicant who has 60 days to collect signatures of more than 40 per cent of registered voters in the member’s riding.

 

In the case of the mayor of Toronto, if such an Act existed in Ontario, that 40-plus per cent would have to be city-wide.

 

Back to the BC scenario, the CEO then has 42 days to verify that the signatures are indeed registered voters, and that the financing of such a petition is in order. If the conditions have been met, the member ceases to hold office and a by-election must be called within 90 days.

 

There is another important condition that must be met for the recall process in BC. A candidate cannot be recalled within the first 18 months of his or her election. For all practical purposes, given the timelines and the expenses involved it probably would not be worthwhile pursuing a recall before the four-year term was up. In others words, one may just as well “tough it out” until the next election.

 

When you really think about it, it is very difficult to come up with conditions for unseating an elected official. For example, if there are serious criminal allegations against an elected official, he or she does not have to step aside or resign until those allegations are proven, one way or another. In the case of a minister, he or she can resign the portfolio but still retain his or her seat until the charges are proven or dismissed. Resigning a seat necessitates a by-election with some immediacy because there should be a representative of the people in that particular riding.

 

A major pitfall of the recall process is that it has the potential of undercutting the democratic process. There has to be specific non-criminal thresholds by which a recall can proceed to avoid frivolous petitions. Much as we would like to see Mayor Ford out of office because we may consider him to be an embarrassment is, frankly, not enough. The current allegations against the mayor are just that, allegations. There is a simple basis for this: the fundamental premise of our justice system is that he or she is innocent until proven guilty. It works for some.

 

In many ways, being able to do recalls can be seen in the same light as having minority governments. On the one hand, they can provide a balanced approach to governing. On the other, they can be disruptive if governments keep falling every so often.

 

The one other safeguard that we have to rely on is that there are over 40 other members of City Council that will hopefully prevent any major damage to the city, apart from its pride. Since there are no visible political party allegiances that must be maintained, it should help.

 

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