We all know that corporate elites have far too much influence in determining how political and economic decisions are made. From Free Trade to fracking, water to health care – business will spare no effort to advance their agenda, while ordinary people have to constantly mobilize to defend the public interest. When we identify “corporate capture” as an issue, it’s not just about the power of CEO’s. Inevitably, it also involves reducing the involvement of everyone else – that messy thing we call local democracy.
In Ontario, the Doug Ford Progressive Conservatives have set a new benchmark for implementing the agenda of the powerful land development industry. The controversial omnibus Bill 23 opens up protected Greenbelt land for projects by key donor companies; dramatically changes planning norms; undermines environmental regulations and building standards; abolishes rights of tenants facing renoviction; strips Conservation Authorities of their role in watershed protection; and removes or reduces development charges that help pay for municipal infrastructure.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario identifies the impact as a “transfer of up to $1 billion a year in costs from private sector developers to property taxpayers, without any likelihood of improved housing affordability.”
That follows earlier legislation to impose an American-style “strong mayor” regime on large cities in Ontario. Developers want less interference from local residents or local Councillors – they would prefer “one-stop shopping” at the Mayor’s office to get approval for huge projects. But now Bill 39 goes further – it allows a mayor to pass legislation with the support of only one-third of their city council if it aligns with “provincial priorities.” This is unprecedented – nowhere in the democratic world does a minority of elected officials pass legislation against the wishes of a majority.
The stated intent is to cut red tape and force more housing onto low-density neighbourhoods, but most municipal 30-year land development plans have already identified sufficient housing to meet community growth needs. Waterloo Region is the fastest growing municipality in Canada, and Toronto has more cranes in the skyline than any other city in North America. In this frenzied market, a huge proportion of new hi-rise units are snapped up by speculators. The More Homes Built Faster Act will do little to improve housing or rental affordability – in fact it limits any attempt by municipalities to require “inclusionary zoning” for low-cost units in new housing projects.
Ford’s plans have met with widespread opposition from across the political spectrum – an open letter by over 125 citizen groups is championed by David Crombie, former Toronto mayor and federal Conservative Cabinet Minister. Several city councils have passed motions challenging Bill 23. Crombie joined the other four living Toronto Mayors to demand the withdrawal of Bill 39, buttressed by editorials in the Globe & Mail and Toronto Star. The Ford Government is operating far outside the bounds of normal governance, and nobody believes that future “provincial priorities” will be limited to housing.
The overall effect would be taking Ontario politics back two-thirds of a century – when developers ran most city halls and openly bought political favours, and before the devastation of Hurricane Hazel sparked the creation of Conservation Authorities. Conservation Authorities have received worldwide accolades for their work. It’s foolhardy to force them to sell off their lands for development, worse to strip them of their authority to safeguard both the population and the environment from catastrophic floods.
On the other hand, there are a number of major Conservative donors who will make out like bandits. Pieces of protected land purchased in recent years by these developers have suddenly seen their value skyrocket as they become open for building. That’s on top of the windfall profits resulting from the controversial Highway 413 project. Some of the richest benefactors have been more than just financial donors – one was behind the shadowy “Vaughan Working Families” front group that took out full page newspaper ads in 2019 attacking teachers who were resisting Ford’s education cuts.
Almost everything on the wish list of this lobby group is being delivered, so it’s no surprise to hear their radio ads running incessantly to praise Ford’s plans. It’s almost as if they wrote the legislation themselves. These are textbook examples of what we call corporate capture. It’s a time when everyone needs to step up to defend the public interest and democracy.
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