Doug Ford is obsessed with running Toronto. What does that mean for Ottawa?
'Municipal affairs is the first thing I would want to change,' Ontario premier wrote in 2016
It should have come as no surprise that Premier Doug Ford has a fierce interest in the way cities are run.
The Progressive Conservative premier was a Toronto city councillor, and his brother Rob was the controversial mayor of the same city. In his 2016 book, Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision, the now-premier wrote: "If I ever get to the provincial level of politics, municipal affairs is the first thing I would want to change."
And here we are.
Cuts to municipalities — put on temporary hold this week — along with sweeping and municipally unpopular changes to planning rules and possible amalgamations of public health and paramedic units are all measures that speak to this government's plan to both transform and slim down the way Ontario cities are run.
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But the premier is likely less passionate about a municipal makeover for the entire province, and more obsessed with the Toronto region.
So what does that mean for Ottawa?
Under the radar
Flying under the radar may not be a bad thing for Ottawa, especially with a premier who appears as unpredictable as Ford.
Within a month of landing at Queen's Park, the PC government took the unprecedented step last July of unilaterally changing the size of Toronto's city council, reducing the number of wards from 44 to 25 — while in the middle of municipal election.
But Ford has said he has no intention of telling other Ontario cities how big their councils should be, a pledge the premier's office repeated this week as Ottawa launches its ward boundary review.
Does it make sense, however, for Ottawa to have almost the same number of councillors as a city three times as populous?
If you want to keep that decision local, don't ask too loudly.
Are we next?
There are other Toronto-centric plots being hatched by the province that could concern us.
For example, there's a review underway of eight regional governments in the so-called "Golden Horseshoe," the area that surrounds Toronto.
When that's done, will the province turn its attention to eastern Ontario?
We don't have a similar regional government system in this region, but there are areas — particularly around transportation — where a more coordinated arrangement between Ottawa and nearby municipalities could be welcome.
For example, some people living just outside Ottawa use our free park-and-rides and OC Transpo, but don't pay the transit levy. Might the province want to address this imbalance?
Or take the PC government's vague plan to give the province ownership of future Toronto transit expansion projects.
Would the province also take over the future expansion of Ottawa's much-delayed LRT? Or, looked at from another angle, why should the taxpayers of Ottawa pay to run Toronto's transit system?
Premier may have scant knowledge of province outside TO
Ford hasn't completely ignored Ottawa: he pledged to continue projects planned for local hospitals and delivered on $1.2 billion for LRT Stage 2.
When the premier came to Ottawa to announce that funding, he enthused about the capital in a way that suggested he's just getting to know our city — and he probably is.
Many previous premiers were either opposition leaders or cabinet ministers before stepping into the provincial government's top job; their portfolios meant that they often travelled to all corners of Ontario.
Ford has never had that.
"He lived mostly in Toronto, he was on the Toronto city council — I'm just not sure how much he knows about the rest of the province," says David Siegel, a professor emeritus of political science at Brock University who specialized in local government.
"I'm not sure this premier really understands a lot of the province."
Siegel points to Ford summarily cancelling services and offices for 740,000 Franco-Ontarians as evidence that he seems somewhat oblivious to the province outside Toronto.
Weeks later, most of the changes were reversed after a sustained backlash from francophones.
The sole francophone PC MPP, Amanda Simard of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, even left the party.
Cuts still coming
Reversals are something of a trend for the PC government these days.
This week, Ford backtracked on some of the funding cuts being imposed retroactively on municipalities.
Mayors across the province, including Mayor Jim Watson, had been furious about the cuts. The premier was booed at a Special Olympics event, and the PC government's approval ratings plummeted to dismal levels.
Still, cuts are coming. The party telegraphed this during the campaign and in the budget.
If it wants to balance the books without raising taxes, decreasing transfers to lower levels of government is a time-honoured way to do it.
For hints about what's coming next, should we look to see what Ford is doing in Toronto? Maybe, maybe not.
Just to be on the safe side, perhaps we should all keep our heads down.