If Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act lived up to its name, it would be great stuff.
Sadly, it’s anything but. On closer inspection, it’s obvious the bill would weaken the mayors of Ontario’s two biggest cities, Toronto and Ottawa, and do absolutely nothing to alleviate either community’s housing crisis. Indeed, it’s hard to say whether Ford’s intention is to increase his own power, weaken that of the province’s largest urban centres, or both.
As history never lets us forget, provincial interests and civic needs rarely coincide. More often than not, one is accomplished at the cost of the other. The language of the bill makes it clear that the expansion of mayoral powers would be largely conditional on Queen’s Park’s agenda. In Ford’s world, the chief magistrates would only exercise veto power over council on matters that pertain to “a prescribed provincial priority.” Similarly, the mayors could only introduce items to council when they “advance a prescribed provincial priority.”
In other words, the proposed legislation would turn these two mayors into provincial deputies,charged with enforcing Queen’s Park’s priorities and blocking local initiatives when they run contrary to provincial goals. Though elected by voters in Toronto and Ottawa, the mayors would be beholden to the provincial government, i.e. to Doug Ford.
Of course, Canadian cities are creatures of the provinces, and as a result, not in control of their destinies. Even so, the Premier’s treatment of Toronto is impossible to justify. His grudge, which dates back to his days on City Council under his brother Rob’s disastrous mayoralty, goes far beyond the bounds of received political norms, including those of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Who could forget his decision to cut Toronto City Council in half during the 2018 municipal election? Canada’s lamentable Constitution allowed him to get away with such a flagrantly anti-democratic and mean-spirited move, but Ford’s spiteful display revealed his inner-bully for all to see.
The source of Ford’s resentment is difficult to pinpoint. Was it the mocking laughter that greeted his backroom Port Lands proposal in 2011? Or was it losing the 2014 mayoralty race to the incumbent John Tory? Most likely, Doug Ford himself doesn’t know the answer.
And as for housing, the bill is a non-starter. Ford’s insistence that creating strong mayors will somehow solve the cities’ residential crises will only add insult to injury. Still, it remains one of the Conservative’s most cherished delusions, an inevitable part of the get-government-out-of-the-way attitude that has a very shaky basis in reality. NIMBY efforts notwithstanding, the lack of affordable housing has little to do with municipal approval processes. Yes, they could be sped up, but the real issue is the absence of meaningful government participation in home construction.
We were reminded of that in early August when the development industry announced it was delaying 10,000 (full market) condo units originally planned for release this year. The reason wasn’t approval times but the increase in Bank of Canada interest rates. Until the various levels of government ante up, there will never be enough affordable housing to meet demand.
If Ford genuinely wanted to help the towns and cities of Ontario, he would address their real concern -- money and taxes. Specifically, they need long-term stable funding with no strings attached. That includes everything from social housing to public transit operating funds. Above all, towns and cities must have access to more than property taxes, i.e. a share of income and sales taxes.
Needless to say, there’s zero chance that either the provincial or federal governments would agree to such a proposal, one many urban centres around the world enjoy.
Given that Canada’s future prosperity depends largely on what unfolds in its cities -- Toronto alone accounts for 20% of the Canadian GDP -- this does not bode well for what’s to come. Failure to enable cities to plan and pay their own way means they are unable to keep up with rival urban centres round the world. A country that allows provincial governments to show even its biggest cities such contempt isn’t doing itself any favours.
Who could forget that episode in 2016 when then Premier Kathleen Wynne caved to suburban interests and abruptly killed an enlightened scheme approved by Toronto City Council to toll the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway? The city’s usually mild-mannered mayor was moved to complain publicly about being treated by Queen’s Park like “a little boy… in short pants.”
Then there’s that nagging issue of democracy. It may be worth remembering that in the 2018 civic election, Mayor Tory received 479,659 votes. In the 2022 provincial election, Ford managed a modest 13,845 in Etobicoke North. Not a direct comparison, true, but revealing. The Premier’s Conservative party won 43.6% of popular vote, which, although considered a landslide, means that more than half the electorate opted for another party.
In other words, not only is Ford’s handling of Toronto bad economics and poor public policy, it’s also deeply undemocratic.