Ontario caps off summer session with bill slashing Toronto city council

Ontario has approved a plan to reduce the number of Toronto city councillors from 47 to 25 ahead of this October’s election.

The province’s new Progressive Conservative government passed the Better Local Government Act, also known as Bill 5, on Tuesday afternoon, despite receiving no support from the opposition parties, which condemned the move as undemocratic during debates.

“The people want smaller government,” Premier Doug Ford declared in the Ontario Legislature. “They want a city of Toronto that is functional, a city of Toronto that can build transit.”

Conservative MPPs cheered as the bill passed, while the other side of the legislature was silent.

The legislation aligns Toronto’s ward map with provincial ridings, while extending the nomination period for council candidates until Sept. 14.

“The City of Toronto must run more smoothly and not be mired in bureaucracy and wastefulness,” said municipal affairs minister Steve Clark during debate of the bill.

“We are proposing to help the largest city in the province run like a well-oiled machine.”

‘He hid it from the people’

Official Opposition and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath declared the bill “undemocratic” and said Ford was “drunk on power.” She pointed out that Ford did not specifically campaign on this issue during the spring provincial election.

“He didn’t say a word [during the election] and now he’s pretending he was talking about it all the time,” said Horwath. “He hid it from the people the entire campaign.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory and a majority of Toronto councillors also oppose the change and are set to hold an emergency meeting in the coming days to decide whether to challenge it in court.

Ford, himself a former council member, revealed his plan just weeks ago, after many candidates had already signed up to run in the Oct. 22 election. 

Rocco Achampong, who was set to run for council in Ward 13, Eglinton-Lawrence, is seeking an injunction to block the change. A judge is set to hear his argument on Aug. 31. 

The legislation also cancels planned elections for the head of council position in the regional municipalities of Muskoka, Peel, York and Niagara outside Toronto. Instead, the head of council in each region will be appointed. 

Those regional municipalities would be able to change that in the future, under the new legislation.

Legislature rises 

The successful passing of the bill capped off a rare and tumultuous summer legislative sitting that saw the Progressive Conservatives forge ahead on several key campaign promises.

The PCs — who won a majority in the spring election — were able to pass the bill and omnibus legislation that included back-to-work measures for striking staff at York University and cancelled a green energy project.

They also introduced a bill to scrap Ontario’s cap-and-trade carbon pricing system, which was one of Ford’s campaign pledges. The bill will be debated further in the fall session, which is expected to begin Sept. 24.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks in the legislature on Tuesday. She said Ford’s Better Government Act would ‘drag the province backwards.’ (Ontario Legislature)

The Tories also announced plans to revoke an updated sex-ed curriculum, wind down a basic income pilot project, halve a planned increase to social assistance rates, lower the minimum price of beer and roll out private sector sales of cannabis.

While the opposition parties accused the government of rushing to dismantle programs without putting anything in their place, the Tories said they were proud to have made great strides in a short time.

 “We’ve accomplished a heck of a lot over this summer session, and what we wanted to do was make sure that we started to move on the promises that were made during the campaign, and I think we’ve done a great job at that,” Tory house leader Todd Smith said.

“We look forward to getting back here and continuing with the mandate that the people of Ontario gave us during the election,” Smith said, though he would not say what the government’s next priorities would be.

‘They haven’t built anything up’

The New Democrats said the government used the summer to push through legislation without public consultation, and suggested the Tories would “continue to bulldoze forward” in the future.

“This session was all about the government driving our province backwards and doing it in ways that were shocking,” Horwath said. “It is a government that in a month has already done a lot of damage.”

Both the Liberals and the Greens said the government had focused on tearing things down rather than putting forward their own plans.

“This session has been about dismantling. They took apart sex ed, they took apart cap and trade, they legislated out of contracts… they haven’t built anything up,” interim Liberal leader John Fraser said.

One analyst said the new government signalled it was keen to get down to business by convening the legislature for a summer sitting, and it achieved several of its objectives.

But some of its chosen initiatives, such as the buck-a-beer plan, did not appear to need urgent attention, said Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario.

“I didn’t really see much rhyme or reason in the approach of the government,” she said.

Neither the summer session nor the election campaign painted a clear picture of the Tories’ vision for Ontario, making it hard to predict which moves the government will make in the fall, she said.

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