Analysis

Will Doug Ford's many legal battles help or hamper his agenda? Experts are divided

Doug Ford's Ontario government isn't even three months old, but is already facing a growing list of legal challenges, and many experts question if the premier's threat to override the courts will help or hamper him.

Ontario premier promises to take unprecedented steps to override courts if they stand in his way

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has faced about half a dozen legal actions against his government since taking office. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Doug Ford's Ontario government isn't even three months old, but is already facing a growing list of legal challenges, and many experts question if the premier's threat to override the courts will help or hamper him. 

Ford's Tories face about a half-dozen cases, including:

  • A human rights challenge launched by an 11-year-old transgender student and five other families against the decision to axe the Liberals' sex-ed curriculum updates from 2015.
  • legal fight with Tesla, with the electric car manufacturer successfully arguing that the government treated it unfairly while ending an electric vehicle rebate.
  • A class-action lawsuit by low-income people from Lindsay for ending a basic-income pilot program.

And most recently, the legal showdown between the City of Toronto and the province over legislation to cut the size of council. On Monday, when an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled Bill 5 is unconstitutional, Ford said he would use the notwithstanding clause in the Constution for the first time in Ontario history to override that decision.

Ford 'thumbing his nose' at the courts

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is one of the organizations taking the provincial government to court over the decision on sex ed. Michael Bryant, the association's executive director and an attorney general under Premier Dalton McGuinty, is alarmed at Ford's threat. 

"It is unprecedented and he's really thumbing his nose at the judiciary," said Bryant.

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says the premier is 'thumbing his nose at the judiciary.' (CBC)

"The question is, can he just do this and get away with it? Can he do this and not take a significant political hit?" he asked.

"Because if he can get away with this, then you're going to see other provinces doing this more often.

"It certainly has a chilling effect for sure on anybody thinking about holding this government to account."

'Sour grapes'

But a former staffer in the office of onetime prime minister Stephen Harper says the legal challenges the PCs face are more akin to "sour grapes" from political foes who were defeated in this June's election.

There's not a whole lot of accountability with voters, and I actually find it really troubling.- Dennis Matthews, conservative strategist

"I think increasingly when groups or people aren't getting their way through the political process, they're turning to the courts to do what they can," said conservative strategist Dennis Matthews.

He worries this is happening not just in Ontario, but on the federal stage with the recent court ruling to block the Trans Mountain pipeline.

"There's at least accountability with politicians," Matthews said.

"If you don't like what they are doing at the end of the term, you get to vote them out, and when stuff gets tied up in the courts, your say is actually removed from it and it's taking place in sort of a parallel universe where there's not a whole lot of accountability with voters, and I actually find it really troubling."

Litigation an 'assault' on democracy, expert says​

University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman agrees the litigation against the Ford government represents an assault on democracy.

"Both in the case of the city challenge and in the case of sex ed, I thought, 'Look, you might not like these policies, but they fall under provincial jurisdiction,'" Wiseman told CBC Toronto.

"So we're having an assault on areas of provincial jurisdiction increasingly. You have a large number of people who haven't reconciled themselves to the fact that Doug Ford and the Conservatives won the election and this is one way of fighting back."

University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman says the litigation against the Ford government represents an assault on democracy. (CBC)

Wiseman said taking on the judiciary will be damaging to the Progressive Conservatives' reputation, at least in the short term.

"I think it hurts their image because people respect judges and courts more than they respect legislatures and politicians," he said.

"However, we have to look at the long game. This government isn't coming up for an up or down vote for another four years and by the time of the next election these issues will not be debated; this will just be footnote."

No one wants the government to be fighting all these legal cases, they want the government to be governing.- Angela Wright, conservative strategist

Conservative strategist Angela Wright thinks the court battles will do little more than entrench existing political alliances.

The only exception, she said, will be people who voted PC as a protest against the Liberals, and aren't traditionally conservative-leaning.

"So they're not really drawn to Doug Ford in and of himself, and that's where we might see people frustrated," she said. 

"No one wants the government to be fighting all these legal cases, they want the government to be governing."

Chris Cochrane, a political scientist with the University of Toronto, said the legal feuds between Ford and political opponents shouldn't come as a surprise.
In a political showdown with the city of Toronto, Ford said he would use the notwithstanding clause in the constitution to reduce the number of city council seats. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"One of the ways to prevent him from doing politics too differently is to litigate to ensure that everything he does is well within the bounds of the law."

But Cochrane said it may only slow him down briefly and may end up helping his image.  

"If he doesn't fulfil some of the promises he can blame the courts for his inability to fulfil them."