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Published in the Globe and Mail, June 25, and the Windsor Star, July 10, 2008
By Preston Manning
President and CEO
Manning Centre for Building Democracy
How do Canadian cities measure up in terms of quality of life, economic performance, civic governance and leadership capacity? Important questions if Canada as a nation is to achieve high levels of performance in each of these areas. Important questions to you and me personally since more than 25 million of us now live in Canada’s cities.
In seeking answers, former Ontario premier Mike Harris and I have been examining some recent data on Toronto assembled for us by the Fraser Institute’s Toronto office. These included a public opinion poll completed this month among Toronto respondents by COMPAS Research and additional census data on cities recently released by Statistics Canada.
These suggest that all is not well with Canada’s largest city.
According to the latest census data, Toronto is losing its edge as a leading business city. For example, the number of management, business, finance and administration jobs in Toronto is falling, while these numbers have increased in most other Canadian cities. More seriously, Toronto’s median income in this decade has failed to keep pace with economic growth across the country. In 2000, Toronto’s median income was 106 per cent of the national average, whereas, by 2005 (the latest year for which census information is available), it had dropped to below the national level at 96 per cent, with even further downward movement projected as a result of the softening of the central Canadian economy.
Do Torontonians themselves sense this downward trend in economic performance? Yes. According to the COMPAS survey, almost seven in 10 (67 per cent) respondents feel that Toronto is either definitely or probably falling, or might fall, behind other business centres such as Calgary and Vancouver.
When asked, “Is local government in the city of Toronto going in the right or wrong direction?” more Toronto respondents (42 per cent) answered “in the wrong direction” than answered “in the right direction” (33 per cent).
Many of those respondents who fear Toronto is falling behind or going in the wrong direction believe so for economic reasons. According to the COMPAS poll, 63 per cent fear that city tax policies may be propelling people and businesses to contemplate moving to lower tax jurisdictions, with 22 per cent disagreeing. And 67 per cent believe that the city should be required to hold a referendum to approve any further tax increases.
But there are other reasons why so many Toronto respondents fear their city is falling behind or moving in the wrong direction – and these pertain more to quality of services and civic governance than they do to economic performance.
For example, the COMPAS survey asked respondents to select which service Toronto does best and which it does worst. Seventy per cent selected fire, water and police services as top performers, while social services to the poor, fiscal management and maintaining road and highway quality emerged as the lowest performers.
When respondents were asked how they would score Toronto’s mayor and council for their performance using taxpayers’ dollars, they were given a barely passing grade of 52 per cent on a 100-point report-card scale. When asked to score the mayor and council on how well they were doing to help Torontonians prepare for the future, the score was 51 per cent.
So what does all this mean? Well, it means that much urban policy development and implementation work must be done to improve the performance of Canada’s largest city – and that of many other Canadian cities – with respect to quality of life, economic performance, civic governance and leadership. Canada cannot excel in any of these areas unless its cities excel.