Wed, Apr
16
2008

Toronto: Whose Fault is it?
Part IV: Mike Harris and Ernie Eves?

Wed, Apr 16, 2008

Vivian is up and around and smiling, a completely different child from the lethargic being that we fretted over on Sunday. And I’m recovering from the illness too. Mostly. Vivian is still bouncing back far faster than me, which I guess is only to be expected. Right now, I’m drinking camomile tea to try and calm my turgid tummy.

I hope to be heading into Toronto on Monday, to drop off some things and pick up my mother-in-law. I expect it will be the last chance I’ll get to do so for a little while until after Nora is born. Which is as good an excuse as any to resurrect the blog series I was working on, charting the responsibility of various provincial and municipal leaders for Toronto’s current fiscal mess. I’ve already gone over the contributions of David Miller, Mel Lastman and Dalton McGuinty. Now it’s Mike Harris’ turn.

Ah, yes, Mike Harris, the man who many politically-minded people love to hate. His shadow looms large over Toronto. In some ways, he’s becoming something of a boogeyman in Ontario politics. His bold moves as premier proved a shock to many systems, and if you’re casting about for any big change that could possibly explain the troubles you’re in, well, there are a lot of changes that can be laid at Mike Harris’ door. He was a revolutionary, and revolutions aren’t revolutions if they don’t at least try to bring about change.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I half-seriously blame Mike Harris for the fact that I’m not employed in the urban planning profession. Actually I blame both Harris and Rae — Rae for being technically in charge during the recession that brought several development corporations under and emptied out planning jobs from the private sector, and Harris for cutting back in government service, forcing me, a newly minted graduate, to compete for entry level jobs with senior managers with ten years experience.

I was bitter once, but it would be wrong to be bitter forever. After all, I’m happy where I am now, as a stay-at-home dad, a novelist and a freelance journalist. Would I be here if I didn’t have to struggle to reinvent myself in Harris’ Ontario? Would I be as happy?

Things are a lot more touch and go with Toronto, however, and so Harris more often gets the blame. And it doesn’t help that, when Harris and his team entered office with revolutionary fervour, he put people in top positions whose resumes seemed tailor made to look like the bulls had entered the china shop. I mean, a high school dropout as the Minister of Education? A used-car salesman as the Minister of Transportation? What, were no tobacco company executives available to be Minister of Health?

But the Minister of Transportation was Al Palladini. And while he made the disastrous decision to pull the provincial government out of public transport funding altogether, he still acquitted himself well in other aspects of his portfolio. He fought hard against drunk driving, and he took the trucking industry to task for their lax safety standards. I respect him for that. He also did a decent job in Economic Development following his stint at the MoT.

With a few notable exceptions, the Harris government were not monsters, and they were not elected to be monsters. They were just there to try and fix the problems of a province that was deep in recession, and the inability of the previous two governments to do the same led them, and the voters who voted for them, to believe that the old ways weren’t working anymore, and that new ideas, no matter how outlandish, were called for.

Unfortunately, as the months that followed proved, some of the new ideas were just as flawed as the old ones in building the prosperity of the City of Toronto. These include the amalgamation of the seven governments of Metropolitan Toronto into a single megacity, a program of downloading the costs of services onto the municipal tax base, and the decision to pull the province out of public transportation funding altogether.

I’ve discussed the flaws of Harris’ legacy before, so I won’t repeat them here. And it’s worth pointing out that the last two changes were felt province wide. However, there were things that Harris did which targetted Toronto directly. The amalgamation was one (though it was followed by similar amalgamations across the province). Harris also directly interfered in the make-up of Toronto city council, and its tax policies.

The amalgamation itself is not something I fault Harris for. Though the move was highly unpopular with local residents, I think it was an inevitable step to take because the metropolitan level of government was no longer relevant (more on this in future segments). It was certainly an improvement over Harris’ musings during the 1995 campaign, when he gave thought to simply dissolving the Metropolitan level of government and leaving the underlying cities intact to fend for themselves under a complicated set of new special purpose bodies to administer the regional tasks that had previously fallen to Metro.

But the rhetoric favouring amalgamation rather simplistically promised tax savings that didn’t materialize, which is surprising since the “one bigger government is better than six smaller governments” mentality runs counter to the small government mantra the Harris Conservatives supposedly believed. Instead, the task of unifying service delivery across the region proved to be a nightmare, and the task of dealing with bigger, more complicated workforces proved to offer no cost savings, a fact the Conservatives acknowledged when they loaned Toronto $250 million to cover “amalgamation costs”, a loan which quietly became a grant.

Then there was the set-up of the new megacity council. The new city hall was initially supposed to be administered by 58 councillors, and 58 councillors were elected in 1997. And then Harris abruptly decided that the new council should be shrunk to just 44 wards. If Harris believed that 58 councillors in Toronto council were too many and 44 were better, why did he wait until the 2000 municipal election in order to impose this decision instead of building it into the new megacity right from the get-go in 1997? His action did much to establish the dysfunctional nature of the current city council, as councillors in 1997 started their careers in the new City of Toronto eyeing their colleagues as competitors as the number of seats on council shrank. Further proposals to reduce the number of seats to 22 probably kept the pot simmering. Some commentators even accused Harris of doing all this deliberately, so that the internal fighting would keep city council occupied so as not to be a thorn in Queen’s Park’s side (or, to put another way, to thwart city council’s attempts to stand up and provide a united front for Toronto’s interests).

But it was interference in Toronto’s tax policies that did the most damage, I think. When people decry Toronto councillors for not getting their fiscal house in order, they should note that Harris made it very difficult, by adding additional burdens (an additional $125 million property tax levy that went to schools outside of Toronto) and by capping property tax increases to just 3% (with commercial rates being capped at half that rate). This combined with the provincially mandated municipal services that Toronto could not get out of paying did much to pave the way towards the fiscal crunch the city felt last July. When city council suggested raising hotel taxes from 5% to 8% to pay for improvements to the TTC — a tax hike that the hotel association in Toronto supported, Harris blocked the idea, because all taxes were bad in his view, and no government within reach of his powers was going to raise them if he had anything to do about it.

Other municipalities in the province were forced to raise property taxes to such an extent, they essentially negated the province’s 30% income tax cut (London is an example of this), but only Toronto was singled out with a property tax cap tying the hands of council in meeting its obligations. Why was this the case? The only explanation I can come up with is either that Toronto’s problems were so much more pressing, and the demand for increased revenues (and the taxes to support them) so much stronger he felt he had to intervene to protect the appearance of his tax cut, or it could have been the presence of all that media near Toronto City Council ready to be presented with a tableau of the unintended consequences of the Common Sense Revolution. It may have been an act of self-defence rather than malice, but it started the ball rolling. As I said in my assessment of Mel Lastman’s handling of his term as mayor of Toronto, with taxes capped and no powers available to control spending, the city had little choice but to dip into its reserves, producing the fiscal mess the city now faces.

Although Ernie Eves didn’t do as much damage to the fiscal health of Toronto, I am even less happy about his time in office. The fact that the damage was lighter was only because he didn’t have as much time. When Harris left, replaced by Ernie Eves, gone was the revolutionary fervour that said that we were going to govern differently and give Ontarians something new. In its place was a cynical dogmatism that cared more about ensuring re-election than fixing the problems of all Ontarians.

Mike Harris honestly believed in his policies, and he sought to have them apply for the benefit of all Ontarians, rather than tailor them to various constituencies as a vote-gaining scheme like Ernie Eves did. His tax cut was a tax cut for all (unfortunately, nobody explained to him that 30% of zero is still zero), and not a mortgage benefit that disproportionately favoured Conservative-sympathetic voters in the suburbs of Toronto and wrote off the renters in the centre city.

Still, I feel that Mike Harris merely exacerbated the problems Toronto was experiencing at the time, he wasn’t their cause. The city was in rough shape before he came into office, and it is worth asking why. His predecessors have legacies too, and opportunities that they missed to prevent the current malaise.


Next Article: Bob Rae and David Petersen.


On This Day

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