I must admit, it was an odd experience hearing you speak at the Association of Ontario Municipalities Conference in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019 (#AMOConf19). I was there, gathered with thousands of other councillors and mayors from across the province, front row/centre as I always am, ready to get a fulsome picture of your policy agenda and vision for the province.
That’s not what we got. I’d dare say your speech was empty, filled only with soundbites about “cutting red tape,” “Queen’s Park getting out of the way,” “efficiencies,” and who could forget the use of your favourite phrase “my friends” (used so often that I jokingly called for a moratorium on it on Twitter).
Taking the main stage in front of over 2,400 participants was your chance to help your municipal partners work with you going forward. You said that’s what you wanted. I’ll take you at your word… But we need details to govern our cities and towns and hamlets because our level of government is empowered through provincial statute. We need to know what the Premier thinks on a wide range of issues, from roads and parks, libraries, conservation authorities, and public health, to climate change and affordable housing.
Yet, so little was stated in your address, we were left scratching our heads and your ministers had to pick up the slack in the following hours and days as we met formally in delegations and informally over food (though, I must say, popcorn and peanuts were an interesting choice of appetizer to serve during the government-sponsored reception).
The best on this front was the deputy-premier, Christine Elliott, who articulated a possible way forward on health. #ICYMI, she said that there would be a new ratio of 70:30 for funding public health, 70 province, 30 municipalities. That doesn’t directly impact Kingston, the city where I’m a councillor, because our funding ratios are already bit higher. Though, I was nervous when she talked about the new public health advisor, who will widely consult on amalgamating regions and dovetailing services. Why? Because although it was more specific than your remarks, it still leaves a lot of questions concerning who will be in charge, what types of activities these organizations can undertake, and how grassroots knowledge will be utilized for local residents’ health and happiness. Will we be combined with Ottawa? Peterborough? Will other municipalities be combined with us? What will happen to the research conducted in the Kingston area for the Kingston area?
More questions were left unanswered during the so called “Bear Pit” — when your cabinet sat together to take queries from the floor. I am very thankful for their participation, to be sure. It says something about the strength of our democracy that all minister of a government can and will publicly convene for inquiry. Yet, it makes me sad that when ministers spoke, their comments were more often than not vacuous. The most alarming was the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Jeff Yurek, when answering a question on climate change (a term that used to be in his title, only to be cut when you were sworn into office. Please reinstate it.). It seemed, unbelievably, that he didn’t understand the concepts he tried to speak on.
Cutting emissions and hitting targets are not abstractions or buzz words. They are absolutely necessary realities that will help regulate global temperatures in order to facilitate continued prosperity for people in our province. Indeed, the statistics are stark. If we continue with current levels of emissions, the number of extreme heat days will skyrocket, leaving the most our vulnerable residents at risk. More than that, the damage to infrastructure will be immense, costing our communities billions of dollars. To say nothing of the other devastating ecological losses.
And this is where we need true provincial “partnerships” — where City Halls and Queen’s Parks can work together. You don’t need to “get out of the way,” you just need to communicate. With more information from your government, we cities can know where and when we can count on community investments. In turn, that means we can effectively plan, strategize, and deliver services. All basic points in the working of a federation that seemed lost this time around. All of which, ironically and unfortunately, make governments less efficient.
Yes, like you, I want a lean government. I don’t think municipalities should feel entitled to anything. However, that doesn’t mean funding should be volatile or unpredictable. That’s cruelty, not reformation. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should cut services that impact our fundamental way of life. Stability to core public programs is essential to help those who need it most, like kids and seniors, and to protect our planet. “Efficiencies” are fine if they mean we can do more with less — not if they mean adversely affecting our local economies and environment. Yes, “cutting red tape” should never be used as an excuse for harmful deregulation; only to streamline processes to make policy make sense on the ground for our residents and small businesses.
So I hope that next year, when we are scheduled to meet again in Ottawa for AMO 2020, your vision will be clearer (pun definitely intended).
Robert Kiley is a Kingston city councillor representing Trillium District. Follow him on Twitter @robert_kiley.