Lightning should surely have struck the offices of the Fraser Institute last week when it released a study co-authored by Mike Harris, the former Ontario Premier, on the supposedly declining state of the City of Toronto.
The study itself (“Is Toronto in Decline?”, available at http://www.fraserinstitute.org/researchandpublications/publications/5696.aspx) was nothing to write home about. It consisted solely of rehashed results from a public opinion poll, and a highly simplistic look at basic census data on median incomes. Citing the poll results (which were based on blatantly leading questions), the authors hinted darkly that that Torontonians are worried about their future (gee, who isn’t?), and “waste and poor value for taxes may be to blame.” (Yes, and fluoridated water “may be to blame,” too.)
The census data was then invoked to make two main points. First, median income in Toronto (and Ontario as a whole) has grown more slowly than in Canada as a whole since 2000, and is now slightly below the national average. No surprise here: there’s a three-letter explanation for this trend, O-I-L. Indeed, the same finding (that median income has fallen relative to the national average) is true for every province that does not produce petroleum, and for virtually every city in every province which does not produce petroleum. According to the Fraser study, only one non-petroleum city showed any improvement in relative median income: Winnipeg, which eked out a tiny gain (presumably coasting on the coattails of its booming, oil-producing prairie neighbours).
Second, the Fraser study highlighted a decline in the number of white-collar management professionals in Toronto as a “proxy” for its supposedly declining appeal as a business centre. Forgive me, but I don’t view the number of well-paid yuppies driving BMWs as a key indicator of social progress. I am more concerned with how the rest of us are living. And state-of-the-art research on urban economics (from folks like the U of T’s Richard Florida) confirms that the general quality and social cohesion of city life is indeed more important in attracting the so-called “creative class” (a term I hate) than tax cuts, small government, and the other Fraser Institute shibboleths.
More infuriating than the study’s iffy methodology and shallow findings, however, was the sheer irony of watching Mike Harris point fingers at the City of Toronto.
Earlier this year I served on Toronto Mayor David Miller’s special task force, which spent four months reviewing Toronto’s fiscal situation. Our goal was to evaluate the city’s current fiscal condition and propose alternatives. And underneath virtually every fiscal rock we turned over, we found the enduring, dirty legacy of Harris’s own tenure as Premier.
I was never a Harris supporter, of course. But through the work of this panel, I was personally shocked to learn of the many ways that Toronto is still struggling to overcome the fiscal legacy of his years in power.
How did the Mike Harris government hurt Toronto, and other cities in Ontario? Let me count the ways:
Social Downloading: Harris shifted the partial or total cost of many social programs (including housing, social assistance, and public health) onto municipal governments, which rely heavily on property taxes for their revenue base. The wisdom of trying to fund social programs from property taxes is dubious, which was probably Harris’s whole point: when it becomes impossible to pay for them, desperate civic governments will just eliminate them. If Ontario does enter recession in the coming months, Toronto will experience a fiscal explosion in the form of $200 million per year in new social assistance costs (based on the proportional trend of the last recession). Mike Harris’s fingerprints will be all over the bomb.
Attacking the Poor: The median income measure favoured by the Fraser Institute depends just as much on the people living below the mid-point, as on those above it. And Mike Harris did more to hammer that bottom half than any provincial politician since Mitchell Hepburn in the 1930s. He cut welfare rates 22 percent, leaving poor people to fend for themselves, and blaming them for their own plight. This damage has not been seriously addressed (not yet, anyway) by the Liberals who replaced Harris’s gang in 2003. Social conditions in the City’s poor neighbourhoods have deteriorated markedly, imposing a continuing toll (in crime, policing costs, alienation, and instability) that the City’s creative efforts (like its pioneering anti-violence strategy) can’t single-handedly solve. Harris’s regressive labour law changes (making it near impossible to organize new unions) made matters worse at the bottom end of the labour market.
Forced Amalgamation: Harris’s social engineers dreamed up and forced through the hare-brained scheme to amalgamate Toronto’s former six boroughs, justified by wild claims about administrative savings and “synergies.” Sound familiar? Corporate honchos spout the same rhetoric every time they bound to the podium to announce another mega-merger. But studies show these savings are almost always illusory in the business world – and that’s how it went down in Toronto, too. The administrative hassle of integrating bureaucracies, services, and collective agreements has preoccupied city administration for a decade. Only now is the City finally coming out the other end: with a higher cost structure (not lower), partly thanks to the upward harmonization of wage levels in amalgamated contracts (OK, I support that part of it!). Oh yeah, and Toronto still owns six city halls (seven if you count Metro Hall).
Funding Cuts: As part of his all-out attack on government “waste,” Harris took a big axe to provincial transfer payments to Ontario’s cities. According to Statistics Canada data, they fell steadily from 4.1% of provincial GDP in 1994 (the year before he was elected) to 2.9% of GDP in 1994 (his last full year in office). It hardly seems reasonable to cut the funding base of cities by a third – and then berate them for the deteriorating conditions that resulted.
Free-Market Experimentation: Other municipal-level programs and services were also the subject to the Harris government’s extreme market-oriented experiments. School boards (“first we need to create a crisis”) suffered funding cuts and provincial interference. Municipal hydro utilities (consistent money-makers for cities) were forcibly converted into corporations, and forced to take on large debt – all part of an indirect scheme to force their privatization.
Bad enough that Mike Harris spent eight years ravaging the social and economic foundation of our cities, then to stroll off to his new position with a corporate-funded think-tank. For him to now come back and point fingers at the victims of his own policies, is a profound insult to those of us who actually have to live in the mess he did so much to create.
The only thing more infuriating is that key members of his posse (Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, and John Baird) are now running the show in Ottawa.
Jim Stanford was one of six members of Mayor Miller’s fiscal review panel, and lives in Parkdale.
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