Christopher Katsarov, The Canadian Press
egional government was introduced in the 1950s and 60’s as a way for smaller municipalities to pool resources and share the cost of growth. The need to expand infrastructure like roads and sewers and services such as police and ambulance over a larger population base made sense. Today some of these once small municipalities are now full-blown cities such as Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan and Markham boasting populations over 300,000 residents each.
When the Mike Harris Conservatives amalgamated the City of Toronto with North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, York and East York twenty years ago, it was widely opposed by local politicians and citizens. Despite a referendum rejecting it by three to one, the Conservatives moved forwarded and rammed through the legislation forcing amalgamation. One byproduct of this policy was the creation of new municipal groups and local politicians who opposed amalgamation such as Michael Prue and Kathleen Wynne.
Fearing a repeat of the public relations disaster over cutting the number of seats just before the Toronto municipal elections, the Ford government is moving somewhat slower than anticipated. Some had expected the government to amalgamate the municipalities within Peel, York, Durham and Kitchener-Waterloo and call for new elections in October. Instead, they will conduct a review of all regional municipalities led by former Waterloo Region Chair Ken Seiling and Michael Fenn, a former deputy minister and Hamilton-Wentworth chief administrator. Perhaps they learned from history and are trying to avoid the mistakes that Harris ran into during his efforts to amalgamate.
The professed reason that the Tories are looking at amalgamation rests on the belief that less government is better and more efficient. According to Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark,“We will be looking at ways to make better use of taxpayers’ dollars and make it easier for residents and businesses to access important municipal services.”
While the public generally favours fewer politicians, the cost savings tend to be marginal. If the experience of the Toronto amalgamation is any lesson to draw on, then they are mistaken. In 2007, Barry Hertz reported in the National Post that cost savings never materialized. He also noted that government staff had grown, with the city employing 4,015 more people in 2007 than it did in 1998.
Politically, amalgamation did not produce any significant dividends for the Harris government. In the 1999 Ontario election, the Tories lost nearly half their seats in the new City of Toronto and in 2003 they were completely shut out. Not wanting to face the same fate, the Tories, who have over 30 seats in the area under review, must tread carefully if they do not want a repeat of what happened in Toronto.
In today’s political environment this move will appeal to the Tories traditional base of fiscal conservatives. To some degree, it may be popular with other voters who generally have a distrust of politicians and believe fewer is better. However, unlike the recent Toronto Council reduction, Ford has given opponents time to organize and prepare. Having signalled his intentions, but not specifying when he plans on making changes, one can expect the next few months to be filled with discussions, rumours and campaigns on the merits of amalgamation.
Marcel Wieder is an award-winning political consultant. He is President and Chief Advocate of Aurora Strategy Group based in Toronto.