Should the ontario tories some-how manage to get re-elected this spring, Toronto councillors might as well head over to Queen's Park and hand Ernie Eves the keys to City Hall. While they're at it, the civic politicians can ask the premier to cancel the November 10 municipal election, because mayors and city councils will be unnecessary hereabouts if the Conservative carpenters get an opportunity to nail together a few loose planks in their latest campaign platform.
Never mind all that stuff about banning teachers' strikes, restricting the political use of union dues and making mortgage interest payments an allowable income tax deduction. The Tories have been talking that talk for quite some time now in a bid to win over voters who haven't quite convinced themselves to offer their ballots to Dalton McGuinty's Liberals or Howard Hampton's NDP.
As it turns out, the Eves regime also has a diabolical plan to further reduce the powers of local government by making it a requirement that municipal councils hold a referendum each and every time they want to increase property taxes or introduce any new levy to pay for public services.
The scheme is an extension of the Taxpayer Protection Act introduced by the Conservatives four years ago to make their own taxation practices - either increases or failed tax-cut promises - subject to referenda. Yet the first time a vote was deemed necessary on the postponement of a promised tax cut, Eves jumped in with an amendment that allowed his government to ignore the regulation so it could balance the provincial budget. But you can be sure the Tories would never cut the denizens of Toronto City Hall that kind of slack.
"It's utterly scandalous," councillor Howard Moscoe says of the municipal referendum proposal buried deep in the 60-page Conservative campaign tome, The Way Ahead. "The end result of this is going to be a massive deterioration of public services in this city. It will rival the deterioration that took place after referendum legislation was passed in California some years ago. They had to retract it when their cities started falling apart."
Alas, some would say Toronto is already falling apart thanks to legislation the Tories have imposed in the six years since the city was amalgamated into existence for the sole purpose of saving the Ontario government much of the money it needed to cut provincial income taxes.
"They downloaded massive costs onto this municipality," Moscoe states. "Now they come along and say, 'It's your problem, but you need a referendum in order to raise taxes.' It's a shameful attempt to buy votes. I don't know if it will work, but I hope it doesn't. I hope people are smart enough to see beyond it."
Of course, this is what you'd expect to hear from the Ward 15 (Eglinton-Lawrence) councillor with impeccable socialist connections. But Moscoe's view happens to be shared by deputy mayor Case Ootes, one of the staunchest Conservatives on council.
"I totally disagree with government by referendum," he says. "We have representative democracy at all three levels. We have elections every three years at the municipal level, where candidates put forward their positions and people either vote for them or not. If they don't like what they got after three years, they can throw them out."
Ootes maintains referenda "restrict the ability of elected representatives to make balanced decisions that reflect the many different demands placed upon them by their constituents.
"There has to be some freedom to make those decisions, and that includes the decision on whether or not to increase taxes," he says. "I mean, how do you protect minority rights with a referendum?"
The answer is, you don't. In fact, it would be virtually impossible for any tax-increase question to garner sufficient voter support for an actual bill to be passed on to property owners. Why? Because in order for a referendum to be considered valid, 50 per cent of the city's eligible voters have to show up at the polls. Considering that voter turnout in these parts rarely crawls out of the 35 per cent range when it comes to electing someone as important as a mayor, you can safely bet people won't be flocking to school gymnasiums all over town so their taxes can be hiked. Never mind the 50 per cent plus one of those who do show up who have to vote yes for the referendum to succeed.
"I'm the last one to vote for a tax increase," Ootes advises, "but I think municipal, provincial and federal governments all need to have that flexibility. This proposal ties the hands of politicians in a way that is detrimental to the people they're supposed to serve."
The deputy mayor is also bothered by the suggestion that municipalities are supposed to buy into referenda in return for the province finally granting them some power to impose local taxes on hotel rooms and gasoline. But what good is that if the city must hold a referendum to see if people want to tap into a gas tax.
"People who drive cars are less likely to vote for a gas tax than people who support public transit," Ootes argues. "And that's just one example of what could happen."
As usual, it gets worse. Any question the city may want to put on the ballot during the reign of another provincial Tory government would have to be approved by the minister of municipal affairs.
"They have absolute control over the entire process," Moscoe laments. "So why did I bother to get elected?"
There may be no reason for him to bother next time.