Jeffrey Simpson thinks that Paul Martin's New Deal for Cities is a mistake, and says so in his column today (Google shortcut).
He explains the theoretical reasons why a federal-municipal cash transfer is a bad idea. Then he presents his own plan for how to help Toronto:
There is nothing new about this sort of plan. People have been talking this way for years. The problem is that Queen's Park has no interest in the most important part of this deal, the uploading of costs that can't and shouldn't be supported by municipalities.
Now sure, I can agree with Simpson and with Stephen Harper that in an ideal world each level of government would have its own responsibilities for which they would gather only as much tax as they need, and no more. No level of government would interfere with the responsibilities of another, although this would not rule out a systematic equalization program.
And it is obvious that the Canada we have is a far cry from Simpson's and Harper's ideal world. But it has come to be that way because we voters have demanded it... and the federal government's New Deal for Cities is a perfect example of this. Toronto demanded, demanded, demanded and finally got help from Ottawa because Queen's Park was so utterly unconcerned about the needs of the city -- malicious, even. Were we not to tell Ottawa about our unmet needs simply because this doesn't fit with the theoretical model of Canada? I say no, even though I recognize the superiority of what Simpson describes.
The ironic thing about Jeffrey Simpson's position is that he bashes the feds for stepping into the municipal file, and then goes on to list all the things the province should be doing instead. Why aren't they doing it? If Simpson is arguing that Ontario can't do that because Paul Martin's government takes up too much tax room, then he is arguing in favour of the fiscal imbalance theory, which is funny since he seems to have little respect for the idea.
The reason that the government of Ontario continues to milk the city of Toronto is the same reason that the province of Quebec likes to complain about a fiscal imbalance. It is also the reason that Paul Martin introduces a gas tax transfer for municipalities, and it is the same reason that he gave in to Danny Williams' unreasonable demands. The factor driving all of these events is political expediency, i.e., doing what is necessary to get the votes that you need. I salute Simpson for taking on this idealistic fight, but there is no point in bashing Ottawa for the gas tax transfer unless we first convince Queen's Park to reverse downloading and grant the City new powers.
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