Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Municipal elections promise to be a political brawl

First published:
June 18, 2003

Get ready for a knock-‘em-down, drag-‘em-on-a rail-out-of-town-fight between local municipal governments and the province in the upcoming months. A very important line was drawn in the sand over the past week.

As Mandy Martin reported in the weekend newspaper, all Ontario municipalities have severed negotiations with the provincial government as of June 12. Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion trumpeted the charged as chair of the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario. It has joined with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) to undertake an independent review of municipal/provincial relations. The original decision was made June 6.

Nobody should be surprised. Since the Tories came to power in 1995, there has been a steady downloading of services on to municipalities. For those with a long political memory, it was a bright, sunny June day when former Premier Mike Harris was pushing his Common Sense Revolution in the parking lot at Gilmer’s Hardware in Port Hope. Some media from Toronto pushed out of the bus. There were a couple questions from local media. Then, he said it was time municipalities started looking after their own needs and the province had its job to do. So, he proudly announced, his government would define those roles far more clearly.

Yikes. Some eight years later, municipal taxpayers have watched as the Tories unloaded services as a means of balancing the provincial books. In the first wave came all the provincial highways, accept the 400-series. Ambulance service, water testing, social housing, waste management, and so on and so forth got downloaded. And to confound things further, amalgamations galore.  After 150 years of stalemate, the province dragged municipalities into streamlining with a promise of bigger being better.

At the same time the downloading and amalgamations were taking place, municipal politicians were riding a wave of public demands for no new tax increases. For three terms, Northumberland County politicians cut, slashed and squeezed every imaginable penny while holding budgets frozen.  Several politicians, including Cobourg’s current budget chief, rode to power on promises of no new taxes.

With very little protest, municipalities rolled over. Sure there were plenty of bogus snipes. There was also a lot of finger pointing. But that was nothing new. For years municipalities were funded for nearly everything. The rate of provincial dollars varies from program to program, but normally ranged from 50 per cent to 90 per cent. Take roads for example. Municipalities simply raised their portion of the roads budget and then the wish list went off to Queen’s Park where a selection of roads for the year was made. If a road did not get funded, then municipal leaders bellyached. If taxpayers were outraged, then it was the provincial government’s fault.

No wonder the Tories wanted some changes.

But the last straw came with Premier Ernie Eve’s idea to hold a referendum on municipal tax increases. Local municipal leaders went nuts. Nobody appears to be in favour. The move would serious hamstring any autonomy.

For the neo-conservatives, the idea is perfect. It would be nearly impossible for the province to get each municipality to pass balanced budget bylaws. Unlike the province, which has many sources of tax revenue (sales, gas, etc), municipalities can only tax property. Municipal leaders would be crazy to adopt such a measure.

But a referendum is a great idea, say the neo-cons. Direct democracy at its best, the argument goes. Let the people decide.

Hah! Referendums have little to do with democracy. Besides being costly and divisive, a referendum holds little credence.

Dr. Hans Kochler, professor and chairman of the Department of philosophy University of Innsbruck, Austria, argues in his paper: A theoretical examination of the dichotomy between democratic constitutions and political reality, the decision made by general referendum is democratically meaningless in a society where the sources of information are tightly controlled.

Walter Lippmann, the great American journalist and political commentator, said more than 50 years ago that “the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise”.

It is the ability of some to “create consent” that undermines people’s ability to participate meaningfully in democracy. That is what the Tories are trying to do. Those with the most money and power will be able to push an agenda in a referendum on municipal taxes.

There was no way municipalities were going to let this happen. So a review will take place.

Northumberland County residents should watch this one closely. Municipal leaders could manipulate this using every possible lever. With Eves considering a fall election and a municipal election going on at the same time, don’t be surprised if the Large Urban Mayors’ group and AMO release their finding in the midst of a provincial election campaign.

It would give those seeking municipal office a natural focus for public outrage that would carry them to victory. At the same time, the province will either end up looking like the bad guys or change their policy. Either way, municipalities win.

Keep an eye on the municipal candidates. Watch for the grandstanding speeches from those running across Northumberland. Pay particular attention in August when AMO has its annual convention. You will see lots of local politicians going and coming home swinging. Just don’t be fooled that all of this is for your sake.

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