How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ontario?

Scottish Parliament

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In an earlier post, I talked about how the current mayoralty race in Toronto features a debate on issues that are, by and large, beyond Toronto’s scope. On matters of transportation, as well as a host of other issues not covered (including garbage collection, economic development, infrastructure, social services and tax sharing), there is a need for a regional manager to administer these areas and assure clear and accountable government, while at the same time maintaining a series of local governments responsive to the issues of the smaller communities within the region.

Fifty-six years ago, the solution to a similar situation was to gather Toronto and its ring of suburbs into a unified, two-tier metropolitan government. And while such a solution seems obvious for the Greater Toronto Area today, the province is unlikely to follow this route, since such a metropolitan government today would be so large as to tilt the balance of power in Ontario. For this reason, the Liberal government in Queen’s Park has been acting as the de facto regional manager of the GTA, which is to their credit. There are, however, risks to this approach. The Liberal government in Queen’s Park is also responsible for other parts of the province, and people in some of these areas already feel that Queen’s Park is too caught up in Toronto’s problems and is ignoring their interests. The polarization of this province that’s occurring as a result of this response helps no one.

For me the ideal solution is the most unrealistic. The issues surrounding the governance of the Toronto region are so large they need a province to manage it, so I believe the best policy would be to create a province of Toronto out of the 416 and 905 area codes of Ontario. This would, however, be a constitutional nightmare to implement, and the other provinces of confederation would be unlikely to support the creation of a Mini Me version of Ontario, diluting their powers and interests in Canada.

So, if we can’t bring Toronto to the provincial level to manage its own issues, perhaps we can bring the provincial level down to Toronto.

Under the British North America Act of 1867 and the Constitution Act of 1982, municipalities do not exist in Canada. Issues of municipal governance are solely the responsibility of the provinces, who have the right to delegate those responsibilities to governing bodies of their own creation. Every municipality in Ontario owes its existence to provincial legislation — some even to the Baldwin Act of 1849. Provincial law determines what cities exist, what they’re called, what their boundaries are, how they are governed, what bylaws they can pass, what taxes they can collect, what fines they can issue, and even how those revenues are spent and whether or not the municipality can run an operating deficit (answer: they can’t).

That’s a lot of power that a province can give away and, theoretically, take back. The province of Ontario could, if it so desired, abolish municipalities tomorrow, and run everything centrally from Queen’s Park. Only the obvious stupidity of such a move prevents them from doing so. But if it can divest itself of all of these powers to several dozen municipal governments throughout Ontario, it can divest its powers in other ways. We cannot create a new province to focus on the issues of the Greater Toronto Area, but the province can create pseudo-provinces through devolution.

We already have a precedent for this sort of thing in the United Kingdom which, twelve years ago, created the Scottish Parliament. Government legislation established the powers and responsibilities of that parliament, and its ability to collect its own taxes. Despite fears that this move would enable Scottish independence, this hasn’t happened, and the Scottish parliament is more popular now than ever. A similar move was made, albeit with a lesser transfer of powers, to Wales, and there is talk about carving up the rest of the United Kingdom in a similar fashion.

There is a need for an accountable regional manager for the Greater Toronto Area, but the other areas of the province have their own issues that deserve attention as well. The political, social and economic make-up of southwestern Ontario is different but no less important than that of Toronto. Rural eastern Ontario is different still, and the National Capital Region is struggling with issues of growth management and congestion, and could use some attention of their own. And, of course, northern Ontario has long felt ignored by the politicians of Queen’s Park that it has generated enough separatist sentiment to launch political parties, and even get speculated on by mainstream politicians in the area.

So, let’s devolve. Let’s create four or five regional parliaments, receiving a share of the provincial income tax, and controlling a percentage point or two of the province’s HST. Give these regional parliaments a clear mandate covering municipal issues common throughout their own region, and leave Queen’s Park to focus on issues common to the province as a whole. Then dissolve all county-level governments and all two-tier regional governments. De-amalgamate all megacities into their component parts.

People have complained that, since amalgamation, the City of Toronto has become too large to be responsive to the needs of its citizens, while ironically being too small to act as a competent regional manager. If Ontario were to restructure itself so that Queen’s Park focused on province-wide issues, and various regional parliaments focused on issues common to the region, we could re-form smaller municipal councils that would, theoretically, be more responsive to the issues of the community. The trick would be to make the lines of responsibility clear, delineating which issues are local, which issues are regional, and which issues are provincial.

This wouldn’t be creating a second level of government, because the regional parliaments would be replacing a level of government that already exists: the counties and the upper-tier regional governments that already span this province. It would, however, consolidate them and make them more visible, which theoretically would make them more accountable.

The Scottish parliament shows that a central government can devolve its powers to a regional manager which maintains the legitimacy of its voting public. And the new governance proposed here would not require a constitutional amendment to create. It could happen. The only thing stopping it is a lack of political will.

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