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Harper, The Provinces, and The Cities
03/06/2004

Stephen Harper's approach to the Cities file received some more coverage from the Toronto Star today.

Some of what he's talking about could actually produce an excellent arrangement for cities in Canada. But there are some big "ifs" attached. I'd also be left with some concerns about how this would affect the country as a whole.

Harper's platform (not just for cities, but in general) includes ideas such as having the federal government withdraw from tax "room" in areas like income tax and the gas tax and allow lower tiers of government to pick them up. Along with letting lower governments collect taxes instead of Ottawa, he'll let them make their own decisions about things like infrastructure projects. At the same time he would remove the federal government from subsidizing corporations, and simply lower corporate tax across the board by an equal amount.

The upside is that this could theoretically be a step towards the sorts of changes people like Jane Jacobs and John Sewell might want to see... In other words, one step towards municipalities having the autonomy and strength they would realize if local democracy, local authority and local taxing power all came together.

Staying on the upside, if this all came to pass, we wouldn't need to worry anymore about the City of Toronto having enough money to manage its infrastructure or its social programs, or anything else. The tax base here in the Toronto is one of the richest in Canada, and any transfer of tax points to municipalities would certainly be a net gain.

The problem -- well, one of the problems -- with all of this is that it's not going to happen. Harper very well may cut taxes in Ottawa, and maybe provinces will pick up the slack, but the chance of provincial governments transfering tax room and authority to municipalities is rather slim. Why, just today we've seen signs that the new McGuinty government has no interest whatsoever in reining in the Ontario Municipal Board and allowing local councils to make their own decisions.

Remember, Harper is interested in provincial rights and in reducing the size and role of the federal government. This doesn't extend to forcing provinces to give a good deal to their tax-cow cities. If the Province of Ontario chooses to continue to overmilk the City of Toronto, a Prime Minister Stephen Harper wouldn't do a thing about it. Of course, neither would a Prime Minister Paul Martin, but at least Martin has promised to deliver money directly to municipalities and spend on infrastructure.

(Now, there's lots more to be said about this -- maybe Harper's plan would help Toronto anyway, simply because Ontario would benefit from keeping more of its own money... maybe under a regime that strictly respected constitutional separations of power we would be able to bring more pressure to Queen's Park without allowing them to scapegoat anyone else... etc... -- but I'm not holding out hope here. Stephen Harper's motivations don't revolve around the Urban Agenda, and there is little reason to believe in the idealistic scenario over than the realistic one I've outlined above.)

I have a further problem with this plan, because I have concerns about how it would affect the rest of the country. I want my city to be able to keep enough of its own money to pay for the particular needs here. However, I also continue to support the idea of a high level of service nationwide. Will New Brunswick, for example, continue to be able to pay for universal health care is the Canada Health and Social Transfer is eliminated and they have to raise the money with provincial taxes? Based on taxing power, Manitoba and all the Atlantic provinces would be faced with a particularly difficult time.

Anyway, I had slightly different things to say about this back in March. Also, Harper is unveiling his platform on Saturday, so we will know something more specific then.


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