The Ontario government’s recently passed Bill 39, The Better Municipal Government Act is a sweeping attack on local democracy in the direct service of private corporate developers. It is a cynical use of the housing crisis to increase corporate profit and restructure governance in Ontario, and it must be opposed and repealed.
The legislation comes on the heels of Bill 3, The Strong Mayor, Building Housing Act, which was passed in September and provides extraordinary executive powers to the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa, and the proposed changes to the Greenbelt Act which would allow for widespread development on 7400 acres of land that is currently protected.
Bill 39 has three elements. First, it allows mayors to pass bylaws which reflect provincial priorities, with the support of only one-third of their respective councils. “Provincial priorities” are not defined in the legislation and are consequently subject to the whims of the provincial government. In the case of the Ford Conservatives, demonstrated priorities include privatization of public services, sacrificing environmental protections for developers’ profits, public investment in private enterprise and transferring wealth from working people to corporations and the very wealthy. Local democracy is clearly not a provincial priority, as the legislation means that councils require a more than two-thirds majority to block “Ford endorsed” bylaws.
The bill also allows the Minister of Municipal Affairs to appoint a head of council (equivalent to a super mayor) for the regional municipalities of Niagara, Peel and York. Such appointments will override heads of council elected by the municipal council members and will place the appointed head on council with a vote, even if they were not elected during a municipal election.
The third element of Bill 39 involves repealing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act, opening up nearly 5000 acres of currently protected Greenbelt land to fast-tracked development. This is the latest attack in Ford’s ongoing assault on the Greenbelt, dating back to 2018. Of the protected lands that the Tories are opening up to development in Bill 39 and related legislation, more than half include properties that corporate developers purchased at bargain prices following the Conservatives’ 2018 electoral victory.
The Tories say that the legislation will help address the housing crisis, by facilitating the rapid construction of 1.5 million homes. In fact, the bill will only aggravate the crisis by sacrificing environmental protections and democratic governance to allow developers to build for-profit housing, destroy agricultural land and contribute to urban sprawl.
Bill 39 will not help municipalities meet people’s needs – in fact, it will prevent them from doing so. What is urgently needed instead is real action to put working people’s needs ahead of corporate profit. This starts with sufficient and statutory funding for the services which municipal governments provide – housing, social assistance, recreation and community programs, transit and public health. It also includes stronger local democracy and recognition of municipalities in the constitution, so that they cannot be arbitrarily created, dissolved and overruled by the provincial government.
The labour movement needs to rally progressive and democratic local forces against this cynical legislation and build progressive civic reform movements which unite labour and community groups in a sustained struggle for local democracy, people’s needs and environmental justice.
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