Because Greater Toronto now contains about half of Ontario’s population, the Government of Ontario is really the Government of Toronto et al. Which is why, every generation or so, Queen’s Park finds itself fighting with the municipal government over the city’s future.
Today, the fight is over the size of Toronto council, which forced the legislature into a rare weekend sitting. Two decades ago, it was over amalgamation, and the legislature sat round the clock for more than a week. That’s how much uglier things got back then.
Also back then, the critics raged, the public shrugged, the deed was done and everyone moved on. The same will happen this time, too.
In 1997, Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris had the same mandate as Doug Ford: to govern in the interest of suburban voters whose values and needs had been neglected by downtown elites and previous governments. For Mr. Harris, that meant weakening the power of the City of Toronto by forcing its amalgamation with York, Etobicoke, East York, Scarborough and North York into a single city.
The amalgamation of Metropolitan Toronto (along with similar amalgamations in Ottawa-Carleton, Hamilton region and other, smaller, communities) fit with the Harris government’s larger program of downloading responsibility for some services (such as welfare) to municipalities, uploading others (such as education) to the provincial level, and creating a uniform, market-based system for assessing property values. But it was a stick in the eye to progressive voters in city centres. And those voters fought back.
Opposition formed on four fronts. First, the mayors of Metro’s constituent cities organized a plebiscite on amalgamation, which showed 76 per cent of Torontonians opposed. Second, former Toronto mayor John Sewell led a coalition of activists and other supporters opposed to the Megacity, as it was dubbed. They called themselves C4LD (Citizens for Local Democracy). The C4LD protest rallies drew thousands.
But the masterstroke came from the NDP, which wheeled into the provincial legislature a cart containing dozens of boxes holding 13,000 proposed amendments to Bill 103, the amalgamation legislation. Each amendment proposed that amalgamation could occur only after the residents of X Street had been consulted, with every single street, crescent and cul de sac earning its own amendment.
The legislature was in constant 24-hour session, as each amendment was proposed, voted on and then defeated by the governing majority. The heat from the old incandescent television lights, which could never be turned off, interacted with the carpet-cleaning fluid (and perhaps some members' socks) to produce a smell reminiscent of fish guts.
But the problem with filibusters is that they are harder on the opposition – who are fewer in number and whose members must endure longer and more frequent shifts – than they are on the government. After nine long days and nights, the filibuster collapsed.
Fourth and finally, the opposition took the government to court. But although one judge accused the Tories of “megachutzpah,” ultimately the legislation was upheld. Municipalities come and go at the whim of provincial governments.
The fight to bring down the Mike Harris government was epic: a province-wide strike by public servants, a province-wide teachers' strike, rotating one-day general strikes in major cities, court challenges, demonstrations by tens of thousands that at times threatened to become riots.
Nothing worked. For as long as the Harris government held the confidence of suburban, middle-class voters – by cutting taxes, spending and regulations – no reform was too radical. The Tories lost their way when they ran out of things to do.
This will be true of the Ford government, as well. If you are opposed to downsizing Toronto council, or to the government’s capricious use of the notwithstanding clause, ask yourself: Do suburban voters, who make up almost 70 per cent of the electorate, share my concern? If they don’t, how can I convince them?
Any other form of opposition will not deter this government. As long as Doug Ford is with suburban voters, and suburban voters are with him, this government will see things through and be re-elected in four years. It’s odd that so many of Mr. Ford’s opponents don’t seem to understand that.