The Future of the Greater Toronto Area
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 25 Jan 1996, p. 331-346
Tonks, Allan, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
An allegorical story about resistance to change and the tension between stability and change. The need for stability in the face of inevitable and unremitting change. A parable for all who have a stake in the future of Greater Toronto. The final report of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Task Force and the many issues with which it deals. The Greater Toronto region as the epitome of change. The change in the make-up of our population. The relationship with the region over the past few decades and how well it worked. The roles of the two-tier system of municipal government. The bottom line: we got it right; got the job done together. Why and how we got it right. The recent change and strain, and reasons for it. Strains that raise questions about our ability to create and renew the infrastructure that we require to compete as a city region. The importance of city regions in the emerging world order. China as an example. Details of the GTA Task Force report. The complexities of organizing a change, with some financial details. Concerns and problems with the details. No shying away from the principle of democratic accountability. The speaker's feeling that there "is no option but to proceed with reform." Some simple parameters.
Date of Original
25 Jan 1996
Language of Item
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Full Text
Alan Tonks, Chairman, Metropolitan Toronto Council
Chairman: David Edmison
President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Tom Wells, former Minister of Municipal Affairs, President, T.L.W. Consulting and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Carl Fox, Sutton Group Fox Realty Inc. and Immediate Past President, The Toronto Real Estate Board; Ryan Starr, senior student, North Toronto Collegiate Institute; The Rev. Kim Beard, Rector, St. Bede and St. Chrispin Anglican Churches; Rita Burak, Secretary of the Cabinet, Government of Ontario; Hartley Stewart, Publisher and CEO, The Toronto Sun; Allan Lamport, former Mayor of Toronto; Dr. Gordon Chong, Metro Councillor and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Ann Vanstone, School Trustee and Chair, Metro Toronto School Board; Dr. Joseph Wong, Member, GTA Task Force; John Honderich, Publisher, The Toronto Star; and Murray Beynon, Partner, Brisbane, Brook & Beynon, Architects and President, Board of Trade of Metropolitan Toronto.

Introduction by David Edmison

In 1834, York became Toronto and our fine city was officially born. We've had some colourful mayors over the years but arguably few could compare with our first--William Lyon MacKenzie. He was indeed one of the most controversial figures in our political past. Although adored by many as a hero who fought for freedom and independence, historians have often characterised him as somewhat adverse to change. Well change is something that Toronto has seen a great deal of over the past century and a half. Who would have known then that our city would expand as it has? In MacKenzie's time, the words York, Durham, Peel and Halton would have sounded more like a law firm than municipalities destined to be home to several million people in the 1990s.

Today, one can really demonstrate a grasp of our current urban affairs by using the expression GTA in a sentence. The Greater Metropolitan Area has been in the news a great deal lately as we wrestle with our future as a major world city.

Recently, Anne Golden, Chairperson of the Greater Toronto Area Task Force recommended the formal replacement of the Metro, York, Durham, Peel and Halton governments with one strong GTAgoverning body. Debate on this controversial issue remains heated and polarised. There are many questions ranging from tax assessment, public transit, and the role of the provincial government to urban planning, political representation and the provision of basic utilities like water and hydro.

As this story develops, the only thing that's undeniably clear is that whatever happens, we'll all be affected one way or another. And while we all should have an opinion on the future of our city, in reality, it's difficult to come to an informed position on the subject without an understanding of the relevant issues. Well our special guest today is as close to this emerging story as anyone in the city, or should I say GTA.

Addressing us today is Metro Chairman, Alan Tonks. He's been actively involved in municipal government for over 20 years including eight in his current role. Few public figures in our city have the diversity of experience and insight of Mr. Tonks. To use an urban expression, he's been around the block and knows the city and issues inside out. Over the last 20 years he's been York's Controller, Budget Chief, Deputy Mayor and Mayor, Commissioner of the TTC, a Director of the TTC, a Director of GO Transit, a member of the Police Services Board and a Metro Councillor, just to name a few important posts.

Mr. Tonks earned undergraduate degrees from York University and Waterloo Lutheran University and a Master's from York and University of Toronto.

Many feel that, as a city, we're at a crossroads. The future of the GTA is uncertain. If someone can unravel the myriad of issues raised in the Golden Report and help us to understand what might lie ahead for us, it is our special guest today. I know we'll all gain a great deal from our own GTA, in this case, Great Tonks Address. Ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome Metro Chairman, Alan Tonks.

Alan Tonks

Thank you David, and good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

I wonder, when was the last time you snuggled up with your little son or daughter or grandchild and read them their favourite bed-time story? I had this experience a few weeks ago. And guess what? Just by chance, the Dr. Seuss story my daughter Alison chose bore a remarkable resemblance to the situation I have been consumed with as a result of the GTA Task Force report.

It goes like this. Two Zax are walking, in opposite directions, across the prairie of Prax. One is heading north, the other south. They bump into each other. There they stand "foot to foot, face to face," each accusing the other of blocking his path, and each strenuously objecting to the idea of stepping aside to let the other pass. As Dr. Seuss puts it:

"Look here now!" the North-Going Zax said. "I say! You are blocking my path. You are right in my way. I'm a North-Going Zax and I always go north. Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!" "Who's in whose way?" snapped the South-Going Zax. "I always go south, making south-going tracks. So you're in MY way! And I ask you to move and let me go south in my south-going groove." One of them tells the other: "I never take a stop to one side. And I'll prove to you that I won't change my ways if I have to keep standing here fifty-nine days." The other Zax, of course, ups the ante and says he'll not budge for fifty-nine years. And so it goes. Eventually, the South-Going Zax sums up the attitude of both by declaring: "I live by a rule that I learned as a boy back in South-Going school. Never budge! That's my rule. Never budge in the least! Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east! I'll stay here, not budging! I can and I will if it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!" So, how does Dr. Seuss wrap things up? As follows: "Well... of course the world didn't stand still. The world grew. In a couple of years, the new highway came through and they built right over those two stubborn Zax, left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks."

Ladies and gentlemen, the story of the Zax is fun. It's entertaining. And there's a great deal that we can learn from it.

The story is about resistance to change and the tension between stability and change. It's about the need for stability in the face of inevitable and unremitting change. It can serve as a parable for all of us who have a stake in the future of Greater Toronto.

The future of Greater Toronto was the focus of the GTA Task Force which issued its final report on January 16. The report deals with many complex and important issues: economic competitiveness, assessment and property taxation, municipal finance, municipal services and service delivery models and, of course, municipal governance. The report's analysis of the issues--its diagnosis of the problems confronting the city region--is written in a fairly pure and, I believe, objective way. After all, the role of the Task Force was to document and put into a coherent argument what others have been saying for years. In stark contrast, the Task Force approached the development of its 51 recommendations in a highly political manner. The recommendations are transparent in their search for compromises and in their anticipation of what different stakeholders may be prepared to live with. I mention this not to criticise the Task Force's approach. It was, after all, a very pragmatic approach. Rather, I mention it because I think it illustrates that the real challenge--a challenge that Anne Golden and her Task Force recognised from the start--is to find a way to reconcile the competing forces of change and stability.

If we get the relationship right between change and stability--if we make change and stability complementary forces--we can flourish as a city region. If we get it wrong, we end up like the two Zax, head to head, toe to toe, bickering our lives away while the real world rolls right over us.

In so many ways, our Greater Toronto region epitomises change. This area has experienced massive, rapid and continuous population growth throughout the postwar period. We've gone from more than a million people after the war to over four million today. And we'll grow by a further two million in the next 25 years. All these people need places to live, work and go to school. They need places for entertainment and recreation. They need water, sewers, waste disposal, roads, transit, police and community services. These activities consume land, so our physical environment has been subjected to continuous and demanding change. And it will continue to be so.

The make-up of our population has changed, too. Our population is aging and it has become one of the most cosmopolitan in the world. As we approach the third millennium, our social stability, our quality of life, our economic competitiveness all depend on how we manage change. Getting the relationship between change and stability right will determine how close we get to the GTA Task Force's vision of being the city region where people and businesses that could be anywhere in the world want to be.

Over the past few decades we have got the relationship right and this region has thrived. We got it right with our two-tier model of metropolitan and local area municipal government. Think about it. In 1953, Leslie Frost's Conservative government passed legislation to create the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto.

Metro was born into a rapidly changing environment and its mandate was to manage and accommodate change. It was empowered to plan and build infrastructure for the entire city region. It pooled resources by levying a charge on the local municipalities in proportion to their share of the region's assessment base. This ensured that no part of the city region was deprived of essential basic infrastructure and services because it happened to have a relatively poor assessment base. It worked. We lived, worked and played in a well-managed urban area with seamless services. As the Metro area matured, the Metro model adapted to new needs and demands, particularly the social infrastructure of community social services, policing, ambulance and public transit. We had an effective mechanism to anticipate change, and manage it in an orderly and remarkably undisruptive manner. This maintained social stability in our region. It set us apart from so many American cities, catapulted us onto the world stage and gave us a competitive edge in the global economy. The Boston Consulting Group's study for the GTA Task Force confirmed that the Toronto area is attractive because of its quality of life and social stability. This is a safe place in the league of big cities. We have managed to draw strength from the diversity of our population rather than let it tear us apart.

Metro managed to protect and nurture one of the most vibrant central cities in North America. Just compare what has happened to the City of Toronto with what has happened to its American central city counterparts over the past 40 years. Was it luck? No it wasn't! Metro made it happen!

The local area municipalities are the other part of our two-tier system of municipal government. Whereas the regional level is geared to managing change, the local municipalities are, necessarily, inward-looking and more focussed on stability. They are intent on preserving the status quo. The strength of the local municipalities is in confirming and trying to protect the good things that already exist. It is an essentially "small c" conservative orientation. This inward focus, this conservatism of the local area municipalities counterbalances the outward, change of the regional level--keeps it honest, if you will. The dynamic orientation of the regional level and the status quo orientation of the local level are necessarily going to be in tension with each other. And that is not a bad thing. I am convinced that this tension is one of the great strengths of our two-tier system because it provides balance.

However, the natural conservatism of the local cities can easily be used as a shield against change--a means of pretending that each local municipality has firm borders. But in reality, as the Task Force confirms, people in the GTA are mobile. The borders are imaginary. Walled communities illustrate the thinking that one can put up curtains to keep out change. But change is the real world.

You can't keep it out. Without a region-wide perspective that acknowledges, manages and adapts to change--without this counterbalance--change creeps up on us and suddenly and unexpectedly tears our curtains aside.

The bottom line is that, for much of the post-war period, we got it right. All those things that needed a regional perspective to get done, got done. All those things that benefitted from a more local community perspective, and could vary according to the preferences of specific communities without harming others, also got done. We got the job done together. We got the job done because the responsibilities of the regional and local levels of government clearly demarcated. And because both levels were reasonably strong.

The essential ingredient in the successful two-tier system has been that each level has had the capacity to fulfil its mandated responsibilities. This has been part of the balance--part of getting it right. And, ladies and gentlemen, we must consider carefully what the GTA Task Force recommendations do to this balance of power between the region as a whole and the various parts of it. I cannot stress strongly enough that, if we diminish our capacity to think, act and invest as a city region, 30 sets of curtains will come swishing closed in a flurry of Zax-like activity and we will not get the job done.

I said that, for much of the post-war period, we have got it right in the Toronto area. Recently, however, our municipal institutions have been under strain.

First, our assessment system is antiquated and unfair. Property assessments across Greater Toronto, from one municipality to the next, even within the same municipality, are based on different years and different methods. The same type of buildings, being used for the same purposes, are assessed at different values even when they may be across the street from one another.

The assessment system must be overhauled. Properties across the city region must be assessed fairly and consistently and by a method that everyone understands.

In fact, if we don't fix finance there's no point in talking about government because we will not be able to afford services like policing, community services and education services that make our community livable and internationally competitive.

Secondly, there are the "legislative barriers." In a nutshell, for reasons that are no longer valid, the province over-regulates municipalities. This limits municipalities' flexibility and responsiveness to a fast-changing environment. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario has called for a new, simpler and more stable provincial relationship--one that gives municipalities more autonomy within broad provincial guidelines.

We know that legislative reform is coming. But we know, too, that greater autonomy is accompanied by massive cuts to transfer payments. More than ever we must ensure, then, that we don't lose our ability to make decisions and have one voice that speaks for the region to ensure we have equity and livability in our community. We cannot afford to lose the strong structural foundation that we spent the past 40 years building. And that brings me to the third area of strain.

Simply put, the Toronto region has outgrown Metro's statutory boundaries of January 1, 1954. Today, our regional level responsibilities are fragmented among five separate and often competing regional governments, not to mention various provincial ministries and special-purpose bodies. This is inefficient, prevents accountability and carves up services that should be seamless. And it's unfair because it leaves some parts of the region paying the bill for infrastructure and services that benefit the entire region. The two-tier system must be modernised.

These strains raise questions about our ability to create and renew the infrastructure that we require to compete as a city region.

We must not lose the competitive advantage that our envied quality of life bestows on us. We must remain nimble, flexible and prepared to compete as a region. Because, as you all know, with increasingly barrier-free international trade, and increasingly mobile trans-national corporations, city regions are, more and more, the locus and generators of global economic activity.

The importance of city regions in the emerging world order cannot be underestimated. China, for example, plans to create 50 new cities of five million people each in the next 10 years. Our opportunities as a region and as a province are going to rise or fall to the extent that Greater Toronto can compete as a city region.

All of this brings me back to the GTA Task Force report. To say that the report and its subject matter are timely would be a huge understatement. We should all welcome this report for placing the issues out in the open for public debate. Furthermore, the interest and momentum toward reform that the report has stimulated can serve as a launch pad for action. But we should not be lulled into accepting the wisdom of every recommendation as written. I'm sure that Joseph Wong would be the first to agree that the Task Force lacked the time to analyze all the issues thoroughly. We need a vigorous and informed public debate about the Task Force's proposals. I am pleased that Minister Leach announced last week that there will be an opportunity for public input before the government responds to the report. At this point, I would like to make a few observations on its recommendations.

Right off the bat, there are two ideas that I think should be supported. The first is the concept of a single Greater Toronto regional council. This reinforces the recognition that we are a single, unified city region and ends the five-way split that now exists.

The second is the package of financial reforms that will work in tandem with the organisational change. Here the Task Force has recommended GTA-wide pooling of commercial and industrial assessment for education, the removal of welfare from the property tax base, and an actual value assessment system.

These two proposals--a single region and financial reform--are fundamental to the future of the present Metropolitan Toronto and the entire Greater Toronto region. But it is not a foregone conclusion that they will be acted upon. I remind you that, a few months ago, when Metro proposed the single region concept to the Task Force, we were told that it was too bold. But, after intense investigation, the Task Force reached the inescapable conclusion that it was the only way to go. Also bear in mind the rocky and unfruitful journey of previous attempts at assessment reform and provincial-municipal disentanglement.

I can hear the Zax girding for battle as I speak to you. But we should not be deterred. If we are serious about responding to the challenges of the global economy, if we are serious about sustainable growth and about nurturing the quality of life for ourselves and future generations in this region, then the GTA Task Force report is a good place to start. This does not mean and, in fact, must not mean that we abandon our first principles. We need benchmarks to measure the Task Force's recommendations. We must take care to ensure that the recommendations do not reinforce the trends that threaten to prevent us from being the place of choice for people and businesses.

Anne Golden offered some benchmarks herself at the Task Force's press conference last week. She said that the critical issues that the Task Force tried to address are:

a) duplication;

b) the complexity of government in the GTA; and c) how to use scarce resources efficiently.

Well, a single region in place of Metro, Halton, Peel, York and Durham regions ends duplication at that level. On the other hand, remember that community services like welfare, day care, hostels and homes for the aged are currently regional level responsibilities. So, pushing these down to the local area municipalities, as the Task Force proposes, increases duplication to my mind. It means replacing five community services operations with 30 operations. Thirty new administrations. Today, Metro runs a single ambulance service for the whole of Metropolitan Toronto. The Task Force proposes replacing this single Metro ambulance service with six new administrations. This increases duplication to my mind.

Recently, the Metro government hired the firm of Ernst & Young to compare the costs of delivering a small sample of services at the Metro level versus local municipal levels. This study found that, even using the most conservative and cautious assumptions, devolution of ambulance and community services to the cities will add $40 million to the cost in Metro alone. That's $40 million each and every year. A billion dollars in additional cost over the next 25 years in Metro alone. And that's just ambulance and community services.

We need to examine these sorts of cost implications as we assess the details of the Task Force report. We need to make more efficient use of scarce resources. The GTA Task Force report comes into greatest conflict with its own objective of making government more simple. This, of course, has implications for accountability--a cornerstone of our democratic tradition.

In proposing a confusing and complicated array of overlapping "service districts" the report sets up a rigid, inflexible, confusing and, ultimately, unaccountable bureaucratic nightmare. Service districts are proposed for just about every regional responsibility--water, transportation, waste, etc. These service districts cover different geographic areas depending on the service. They would be overseen by special purpose boards appointed by various combinations of municipalities. They would presumably be answerable to all of their appointers and have to have their budgets approved by their service board, their local government and the regional council, which would also set broad policy.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not simple. This is not accountable. The buck would soon be red hot from being passed around so much. Instead of simplifying government and making gains by folding five regional government into one Greater Toronto Council, and leaving it at that, we would be dragged backwards by the creation of potentially 150 or 160 fragmented and ponderous quasi-governments. And make no mistake, that's what service districts will become.

I am also concerned by the proposed composition of the Greater Toronto Council. The Task Force recommended that it be made up essentially of mayors from some but not all of the local area municipalities, and that the real power be concentrated in the hands of a regional chairman, appointed by the province, and five or six mayors. First of all, this approach fails to meet elementary principles of democracy, for it leaves many residents of the GTA unrepresented at the regional level. What the Task Force has proposed for the regional council amounts to no more than a sub-committee of GTA mayors. This is really a committee of Zaxs accountable to individual local councils with no overall sense of regional purpose. The mayors, as I've pointed out, do not approach things from a region-wide perspective. They are--indeed should be--champions of their local municipalities. So, my second concern with a council dominated by mayors is that it may not have the ability to make the tough regional interest decisions and set region-wide priorities. If the regional level is weakened to the point that it cannot be effective in setting the regional course and carrying out its mandated responsibilities, the Task Force's vision will not and cannot be achieved. I mean, do we really want 30 Zaxs making regional decisions?

If we weaken the regional level in our two-tier system, we will upset the balance between meeting change and preserving what we already have--the very balance that has allowed us to get the job done for so many years. Any new Greater Toronto Council and the councillors who sit on it must have their own constituency and clearly defined and mandated responsibilities. Democratic accountability must guide the regional council as it engages the issues with input from an involved and informed citizenry.

There can be no shying away from this principle of democratic accountability. Regional government in Metropolitan Toronto began in 1954 with an appointed chair and a group of mayors. It evolved, through representation by population, to direct representation. There can be no turning back from the evolution of democratic government in this region.

So, in my mind, there is no option but to proceed with reform. It is essential and I think that the GTA Task Force members would agree. You and everyone else in the GTA will be getting some very mixed messages over the next few months, and they will be hard to decipher. Everyone will be coming forward with their own spin on the Task Force recommendations. Don't let them fool you! What you are going to hear when you cut through the rhetoric is that they don't want change. The four mayors' proposal on Tuesday was exactly that.

If we get too caught up in the detail of the competing proposals, we could end up thinking this is a very complex matter. It isn't. I don't agree with many of the Task Force's recommendations because I think they tried too hard to satisfy all those mayors out there--they lost sight of what we really need for the region. In my mind, it's pretty simple:

• Yes, we are a single, integrated economic and social entity and that means we need a boundary change to reflect that.
• We need a real regional government that can actually make real decisions and set regional priorities.
• Sound cost-benefit analysis and common sense should make it obvious which services are regional and which aren't.
• The regional government needs a revenue source to do its job.
• The regional government must be directly accountable to you, the citizens of the region.

I know of what I speak. I've been the Mayor of York. I've been an indirectly appointed councillor representing the City of York on Metro Council. And since 1988, I've been Chairman of a directly elected Metro Council. In my experience, you as business people would be better served by a directly elected regional voice. It's important to your future as business people. It's important to our families and to our children who want to live in a decent community. I simply don't buy this business of 30 mayors saying that bringing our regional boundaries and finance systems up to date is so hard to accomplish. You know, sometimes I imagine Leslie Frost sitting with the 13 Zaxs of his day and saying to himself, "How am I ever going to get these people out of their grooves?" Well, ladies and gentlemen, he did get them out of their grooves in 1953. And we can do it again today!

Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Dr. Gordon Chong, Metro Councillor and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Future of the Greater Toronto Area

An allegorical story about resistance to change and the tension between stability and change. The need for stability in the face of inevitable and unremitting change. A parable for all who have a stake in the future of Greater Toronto. The final report of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Task Force and the many issues with which it deals. The Greater Toronto region as the epitome of change. The change in the make-up of our population. The relationship with the region over the past few decades and how well it worked. The roles of the two-tier system of municipal government. The bottom line: we got it right; got the job done together. Why and how we got it right. The recent change and strain, and reasons for it. Strains that raise questions about our ability to create and renew the infrastructure that we require to compete as a city region. The importance of city regions in the emerging world order. China as an example. Details of the GTA Task Force report. The complexities of organizing a change, with some financial details. Concerns and problems with the details. No shying away from the principle of democratic accountability. The speaker's feeling that there "is no option but to proceed with reform." Some simple parameters.