Rob Ford may be the best thing to happen to Toronto in a long time. Alleged crack-smoking and ass-grabbing aside, the political meltdown of the embattled mayor of Canada's largest city may inadvertently help undo one of the most disastrous public policy decisions in Canadian history: the amalgamation of Toronto by former premier Mike Harris.
In 1998, the Harris government forced a shotgun wedding on Toronto and five surrounding suburbs, in spite of local referendum results opposing the move more than three to one .
Not a single municipality affected was in favour of the merger, and all but one joined a legal challenge opposing it. The amalgamation bill was rammed through the Ontario legislature in one of the most bitterly contested battles in provincial history with opposition parties tabling 13,000 amendments over a two-week period in an ultimately futile filibuster.
Harris did not need to worry. Under our antiquated electoral system his government enjoyed virtual dictatorial powers winning 64 per cent of the seats in the legislature with only 45 per cent of the popular vote – most of this support concentrated in the right-leaning suburbs. He didn't need to represent the province, just his political base.
The stated reason for forcing the merger was to save money, which has proven to be an abject failure. Harris predicted the new mega-city would save $300 million annually. The city's operating budget has instead ballooned from $5.6 billion in 1998 to $10.8 billion in 2013 – an increase of 93 per cent.
In 2001, the C.D. Howe Institute released a damning report, Local Government Amalgamations: Discredited Nineteenth-Century Ideals Alive in the Twenty-First . The study bluntly stated: "Amalgamations forced on municipalities by provincial governments are the product of flawed thinking and a bureaucratic urge for centralized control… Smaller and more flexible jurisdictions can often deliver services to residents at lower cost, throwing in doubt the financial assumptions typically used to defend amalgamations."
The real reason for Harris's unannounced intervention into Canada's largest city was likely more Machiavellian than monetary. Harris was no friend of then Toronto mayor Barbara Hall, who had strong connections to the NDP and had led a protest at Queens Park against the Harris "Common Sense Revolution". Amalgamating Toronto would not only throw Hall out of office, Harris also correctly calculated that the new mega-city would likely elect right wing suburban mayors in perpetuity based on simple demographics.
This is exactly what has happened. Assuming His Worship Mayor Ford lasts until the end of his mandate, Toronto will have been governed by suburban right-wing mayors for 10 out of 17 years. A map of voting patterns in the last election shows that the boundaries of the former City of Toronto almost exactly match the wards that voted for Ford's main rival, George Smitherman, while the surrounding suburbs were the solid Tory blue of so-called "Ford Nation."
A beaming Mike Harris attended Ford's victory celebration along with members of Stephen Harper's cabinet. The political hobbling of progressive Toronto seems an important neo-conservative project, given the GDP of the city exceeds that of six Canadian provinces, and the alleged ascendancy of Calgary as the new national seat of power.
An era of anti-urban mayors
What was unleashed on Toronto in 1998 was a diabolical masterstroke: a perpetual culture war between the suburbs and the city, where the later will almost always be outvoted by suburbanites with different values, priorities and motivations.
Transit is a pregnant example. If the TTC only had to serve the former City of Toronto, it would actually turn a profit . Instead the beleaguered transit authority is whipsawed by populist politics and asked to deliver astronomically expensive subway service to the surrounding low-density sprawl. One of the first actions of Mayor Ford was to rip up Transit City, the guiding planning document for public transport even though it had been developed through years of consultation and had $1.3 billion in signed contracts.
The proposed mega-casino is another example of a clash of values and priorities. The suburban mayor touts the " golden opportunity " of jobs and tax revenue, knowing the externalized social costs will happen far from his Etobicoke home. Not surprisingly, the residents of downtown Toronto were not enthused with the prospect of organized crime and compulsive gambling infusing their neighborhoods and successfully killed the project after a long, hard fight against their own mayor.
Ford has not been the only embarrassing mismatch to the city. In the wake of the SARS outbreak former mayor Mel Lastman commented to CNN about the World Health Organization, “They don't know what they're talking about. I don't know who this group is. I've never heard of them before.” When he was bound for Kenya to represent Toronto's Olympic bid, Lastman said “What the hell would I want to go to a place like Mombasa for? … I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.”
Mind you, Ford's latest outing makes Mel Lastman look like Lester Pearson. Visitors to Toronto spent $4.4 billion last year and Tourism Toronto spent more than $12 million last year promoting the city – all undermined by allegations so shocking we warrant a segment on the Jon Stewart Show.
Toronto – one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world – obviously deserves better.
De-amalgamate, or self-destruct
Rather than subways to sprawl or mega-casinos, there is another "golden opportunity" that should instead be seized on: de-amalgamating Toronto. Mayor Ford has so thoroughly discredited himself, the time may never be better to revisit the creation of the political chimera that is Toronto. His meltdown and those of Mel Lastman are not mere political gaffes; they are symptoms of a deep-seated malaise of governance created by Harris 15 years ago.
One urban academic recently referred to Ford as the "worst mayor in the modern history of cities, an avatar for all that is small-bore and destructive of the urban fabric, and the most anti-urban mayor ever to preside over a big city."
The political left would be mistaken if they believe this presents a problem for "Ford Nation." Exactly the opposite is true. Ford was sent downtown by suburban voters to bring home the bacon while cutting their taxes – essentially sabotaging the city. Mission accomplished. And if he thumbs his nose at Toronto elites along the way, so much the better. Ford himself may self-destruct, but the city will largely be ruled by suburban populists for the foreseeable future.
Ontario premier holds the power
Only the province has the power to undo this ongoing debacle. Both the NDP and the Liberals have an interest in making the Greater Toronto Area more efficient, accountable and functional. Forging a strategic alliance to save Toronto would also be good practice for progressives facing a national election in 2015.
Other political planets are now in alignment. Newly installed Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was deeply involved in the anti-amalgamation fight 15 years ago. She is on record as saying , “I've knocked on tens of thousands of doors since I got into provincial politics, both in 2002-2003 and 2006-2007, and I have yet to meet anyone who says they think the amalgamation of the city of Toronto was a good idea … Maybe that's a lie. Maybe I've met two people.”
Even Mayor Ford is in favour of de-amalgamation. In 2011 he said, “Would I like to go back to the old Etobicoke? Sure, if it didn't cost us a dime. I think everybody would agree: “Let's go back.’”
There's no doubt that devolving responsibilities back to a two-tiered system of regional and local governments will cost money. But the transition costs of amalgamation were $275 million – less than three per cent of the current budget.
Having the city operate on political self-destruct mode is also a cost. Imposing suburban transit priorities on downtown taxpayers is a cost. Creating a sprawling decision-making process fraught with inherent political contradictions is a cost. As they say in business, “there's no free lunch.”
We can do better. The mayor's latest outrageous behavior may be exactly the catalyst needed to recast Toronto and the surrounding cities with their own locally accountable governments that many experts believe would be cheaper and more efficient. This would also be an opportunity to fix how local governments have been saddled with numerous previously provincial responsibilities with no way to raise the revenue to deliver them. That conversation needs to happen and we can thank Rob Ford for getting it started.