Recall Legislation in Ontario: A Democratic Reform?

David Holysh

A majority of Torontonians want Mayor Rob Ford to leave office. So does the business community, all of the major newspapers, and his fellow City Council members. But Ford won’t resign, and there is no mechanism to remove him from office short of a conviction with jail time.

Unlike the federal and provincial parliaments, the mayor is directly elected and the councillors cannot force him out. There is no party system in Toronto municipal politics, so a caucus cannot overthrow him, as would be possible in Vancouver or Montreal. Municipalities are, however, creatures of the province, and the Premier has hinted that Ontario could take action if invited. But political considerations at the City Council level make that course of action unlikely.

This impasse has prompted some commentators to express a desire for recall legislation. This legislation would allow an election to be called mid-term if a petition was gathered with a sufficient percentage of constituents’ signatures.

Many disgruntled Torontonians would view this legislative change as a democracy-enhancing measure. After all, if a politician has lost the public trust during their term, why should constituents be prohibited from removing their own representative? Shouldn’t they at least get the chance to vote?

The situation in Toronto is the perfect context to illustrate the benefits of recall legislation. With 60% of Torontonians wanting the mayor to resign, and with Ford currently facing the fallout from a criminal investigation and numerous allegations of substance abuse, even his allies want him to step down. Informed of the absence of any mechanism to remove Ford beyond next year’s election, a correspondent for the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart remarked: “[An election] next year? In 2014? What is wrong with the system here?”

Historically, support for recall legislation has been weak in Canada. It was supported by the Reform Party in the early 1990s, but a private member’s bill was resoundingly rejected in the House of Commons when it was introduced in 1994. The idea also found support with the Wildrose Party in Alberta, but was not part of the province’s political agenda.

British Columbia enshrined recall elections in law after a 1991 referendum on the question passed with the support of 80% of voters. Since the implementation of the Recall and Initiative Act, there have been 24 recall efforts.

By requiring 40% of all eligible voters in a riding to approve a recall, B.C.’s legislation has an unusually high threshold of signatures required to prompt a recall election. All but one of these attempts has failed due to a lack of signatures. In the one remaining instance, the MLA in question resigned shortly after it became clear that the petition would gather the requisite number of signatures, so no actual recall election has ever occurred.

Last month, Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Randy Hillier introduced Bill 124, a private member’s bill that would force an election for a MPP if a petition is collected with the signatures of 25% of a ridings’ voters. Although this bill only applies to provincial politicians, Hillier has said he is willing to accept amendments to include municipal politicians as well.

Although there is a strong argument to be made that recall elections hold politicians more accountable to their constituents, there are some downsides. In the U.S., an over-reliance on recall legislation (as well as ballot initiatives) has diminished the role of the state assembly.

The spectre of a possible recall election has led to the rise of a “permanent campaign,” making legislators fearful of tackling controversial or divisive issues. A recall attempt against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker over his union-busting legislation was unsuccessful, while two state senators from Colorado were removed from office in a recall election for supporting gun control. Some U.S. states even allow judges to be recalled. In 2010, Iowa voters recalled three judges for ruling to legalize same-same marriage.

Although it is unlikely that Ontario’s political culture would change radically if recall legislation were to pass, the threat would reduce the range of policies that politicians will feel comfortable advocating. Furthermore, recall efforts could be taken over by opposition political parties, which in turn could lead to a more combative political environment.

To his credit, Hillier’s bill contains a number of provisions that minimize the potential problems that afflict recall elections in the U.S. Bill 124 would prevent well-funded organizations and individuals from exerting undue influence over the outcome of the election by prohibiting contributions to recall campaigns in excess of $7,500. Hillier’s 25% threshold for spurring a recall election, while lower than B.C.’s, is still relatively high enough to prevent spurious challenges.

With an average Ontario riding size of around 110,000, getting 27,500 voters to sign up would represent a meaningful but not insurmountable hurdle. If Hillier’s bill was amended to include the recall of municipal politicians, however, a petition for recalling the mayor would require over 375,000 signatures: a task that would demand significant logistical efforts.

At the end of the day, Hillier’s private members’ bill is unlikely to pass, and recall legislation in Ontario will remain a political consideration only considered when a politician has lost the trust of the voters but will not resign. Still, it’s a tempting option for citizens—after all, choosing one’s representative is a fundamental aspect of our political system—but some of the broader effects of recall legislation must also be taken into account.

David is a 2015 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds an BA (Hons.) in political science, and has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. His interests include fiscal policy, intergovernmental relations, and public opinion.

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