07/16/2013 05:49 EDT | Updated 09/15/2013 05:12 EDT

What's Holding Back Toronto?

Recent political drama in Toronto has brought its numerous power struggles into the spotlight. Between the hovering possibility of Premier Kathleen Wynne dissolving the city's infrastructure and the ongoing conflicts between Rob Ford and his cabinet, the recurring question is: who really controls Toronto?

Dwight Duncan, who up until a few months ago was Ontario's Minster of Finance, recently suggested that his colleagues at Queen's Park should force the Mayor of Toronto from office over un-proven substance abuse allegations. Soon after, the federal Minister of Finance indicated he would prevent the Government of Ontario from setting variable sales tax rates to raise revenue for its Greater Toronto Area transit plans. While not connected, these two incidents underscore the troubled state of Canadian federalism. Though the Premier theoretically has the power to dissolve the City of Toronto, and the Harmonized Sales Tax agreement was written in a manner that would prohibit the Premier's plans, this type of bullying should not be happening. Toronto voters elected Rob Ford to run Toronto, and Ontario voters elected a government headed by Premier Wynne to run the Government of Ontario. These two incidents illustrate how the messy state of Canadian federalism can allow partisan proxy wars to undermine democracy at subnational levels of government. We need to ensure that constituents -- not politicians elected by the entire provincial (or federal) electorate -- are the arbiters of their governments' fates.

Rob Ford's tenure as Mayor of Toronto has been uncertain ever since a judge attempted to remove him from office for using City letterhead to raise money for the football team he coaches (the Supreme Court subsequently overruled the ruling). The recent drug use allegations have further destabilized him politically. Like the first incident, his opponents (who treat him as though he were the Devil Incarnate) have latched onto this as an excuse for the provincial government (which isn't particularly friendly to Ford) to remove him from office. When Dwight Duncan suggested that the province step in, the Premier equivocated, and made some remarks that some (including the Mayor) interpreted as a thinly veiled threat. "I am worried about the situation. We're monitoring it very carefully. As appropriate, we will be involved," Wynne said. She clarified her position a few days later, stating that: "Right now, there is no clear path of action for the province. That is the reality. We are paying close attention." The lament for a "clear path" is troubling.

The remarks by Duncan and Wynne could be interpreted more charitably, were it not for the fact that the Mayor is a known conservative, whose brother and ally on city council was (until recently) considering running for the Ontario PC party. Given the ongoing dispute between the province and the Mayor over transit funding since the day he took office, it would seem natural that the Wynn would rather see Ford gone. The recent decision to strip Toronto of $150-million doesn't seem coincidental. The fact that the province has more say over Toronto's transportation plans than the city allows for this type of partisan proxy war to take place.

The dust-up between the federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty and current Ontario Minister of Finance Charles Sousa hints at a similar dynamic. Flaherty argued that Ontario's proposal to increase the sales tax within the GTA to fund public transit would violate the federal-provincial agreement that allowed for the creation of the harmonized sales tax. Though this is technically true, it's unclear why the federal government wouldn't cooperate with the province by amending the agreement. The Premier subsequently argued that the federal government should be giving more money to the Greater Toronto Area for transportation. In other words, the federal government is preventing the provincial government from giving money to the municipal government so the provincial government is demanding that the federal government give more money to the municipal government instead. Toronto voters were absent from this discussion. Perhaps Flaherty, a former Ontario PC Minister of Finance, disagrees with the provincial government's policies. Perhaps he is a stickler for contracts. Either way, he shouldn't be in a position to determine whether or not Toronto's municipal government can fund its public transportation plans.

The above incidents illustrate the problem with having multiple levels of government involved in the same program areas. In order to strengthen accountability and empower voters, we need to ensure that only constituents have a say over the policy of their respective governments. Voters in Ottawa shouldn't determine the fate of Toronto's transit system, let alone voters in Moose Jaw or Fredericton. Rather than further centralizing policies by undertaking a national transportation strategy, a national energy strategy, or any other national strategy to cover local matters, the federal government should gradually retreat from areas of provincial and municipal jurisdiction, which would free up 1/3rd of federal spending. That would give provincial and municipal governments access to over $100-billion of additional revenue every year. It would forever end the tired argument that only Ottawa can fund Toronto's transit obligations. Perhaps that would also allow the City of Toronto to actually settle on a transit plan.