There's no need for Ernie Eves to spend more money on expensive polls to figure out that his government's political troubles extend well beyond the borders of Toronto and a few other urban centres. Had the premier bothered to show up like he was supposed to this week at the annual convention of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), he'd know first-hand just how slim Tory chances of re-election have become right across the province. Unfortunately, the leader of the governing party decided that the general populace would rather see his face on the tube holding forth on matters related to power generation. So he gave the big Fairmont Royal York Hotel get-together a pass on Monday (August 18) and left it to 15 members of his cabinet to put in appearances the next day for the traditional "bear pit" session.
Now, these question-and-answer periods are usually pretty tepid affairs where supposedly subservient local councillors fawn all over the high-and-mighty ministers and thank them profusely for all the knowledge they impart over the course of an hour. Almost all of the questions asked at the 2002 gathering concerned the status of the spring bear hunt in Northern Ontario. And Eves got a standing ovation for dropping by to pay lip service to improved relations between municipalities and Queen's Park.
But things took an interesting turn this year. The registration desk hadn't even opened and already there were angry rumblings about a proposal that the Conservatives have vowed to make a key plank in their emerging re-election platform.
It's bad enough that cities, towns and villages can't get enough money from the province to do all the things they've been handed responsibility for since the Tories came to power in 1995.
Now the bullies plan to make it impossible for local government to raise property taxes unless they get permission from the citizens through referenda. And the way the plan is set out, such electoral approvals would be nigh on impossible to get.
By the time Municipal Affairs Minister David Young and his colleagues trooped into the Canadian Room to partake in what was supposed to be a friendly forum, the delegates were in one ugly mood. All it took was Mississauga chief magistrate Hazel McCallion stepping up to the microphone to denounce the referendum legislation as "an insult to me as a mayor" for the place to go wild. Virtually everyone in the salon jumped up from their chairs to give the feisty octogenarian a standing ovation. The hoots and hollers of support were resounding.
"I would suggest that you folks get on with your referendum and call a provincial election," McCallion sneered as the crowd erupted in frenzied applause. She challenged the ministers to "smarten up, tell the premier he's out to lunch" and join AMO in supporting "an independent review of the relationship between municipalities and the province of Ontario."
I'm sure there was a lot more the proudly conservative queen of the 905 would have liked to tell the group perched on the podium above her. But someone cut the juice to her microphone and all you could hear after that was the chorus of angry boos and catcalls directed at Young as he tried to counter McCallion's arguments.
"This is an issue we disagree on," the municipal affairs minister said. "Our platform is about giving taxpayers a greater voice. We are going to take that proposal to the people of this province. They are ultimately going to have an opportunity to say yea or nay. We believe, quite frankly, that it will be well received.'
McCallion was having none of it in an interview following the session. "They never take their budget to the citizens," she said of the Tories. "We're elected to decide what the municipal budget should be. We go to the polls every three years, and the citizens have the opportunity then to tell us whether the way we're spending their money is acceptable or not. Our election is based on performance - not on the amount of money we hand out before an election."
McCallion doesn't think the provincial electorate is prepared to be so easily bought this time around, and that has Eves and his Conservatives scared stiff. "They know they're in trouble," she said. "This room represents the people of Ontario. Every small municipality or large municipality is represented, so I would think the people here are responding to what their citizens feel."
AMO president Ken Boshcoff, the mayor of Thunder Bay, called the proposed referendum legislation "a slap in the face" to municipal politicians, who are fed up with the lack of respect they've been getting from Queen's Park.
"They just don't get it," he said of the ministers who attended the conference Tuesday. "This is a solid municipal front; it's everybody from Kenora to Cornwall. We've taken the very unusual position of attacking a platform from a political campaign. When the campaign is directed toward making elected municipal officials the scapegoat, we have to react by exposing it as election fraud."
Ironically, the theme of this year's AMO conference was "What's Beyond The Bend?" Given what happened there this week, I'm not sure Eves and his collection of Conservative candidates will be in any hurry to find out.