David Miller: The real consequences of 'hidden' government cuts

By David Miller - Published on Sep 08, 2016
Politicians who demand cuts to public services such as transit refuse to accept responsibility for them, former Toronto mayor David Miller writes. (Imnature/iStock)

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Faulty air conditioning on Toronto Transit Commission subways has created a minor furor in Toronto this summer.  The east-west Bloor Danforth line has the oldest subway cars in the system, and in a hot dry summer the cars are baking hot.  People were upset and tempers frayed. I know, because I travel this route every day.  On one trip home from the office, a fight broke out in my car.  Given the extremely hot and packed conditions, I am slightly surprised that there weren't many more reports of such incidents.  People began to complain, more and more loudly. Then the predictable finger pointing happened: city hall demanded the TTC fix the problem faster.

Yet at the same time as our local government was demanding an immediate solution, the TTC was instructed to make  significant cuts to its operating budget.  It was as if the problems were disconnected, as though there is no relationship between an institution’s finances and its ability to function effectively. 

This, of course, is not true. It's a kind of political and economic law: these kinds of budget cuts always result in worse service. And there is a corollary: the conservative politicians who demand such cuts always refuse to accept responsibility for them, and pretend there is no connection between the actions they took and their direct repercussions.

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They often get away with this because the consequences aren't immediately obvious to the general public, or only hit politically disempowered parts of the population. For example, in the 1980's and early 1990's, the TTC deferred maintenance as a way of coping with budget challenges. Deferred maintenance is another word for a cut. It's pernicious, because citizens can't easily see the cut and exercise their right to vote against it, yet it can have serious consequences. A tragic subway crash of 1995 in which three people were killed had a number of causes, the most critical of which was the failure of a fail-safe arm — a safety mechanism specifically designed to prevent an accident when a train misses a signal.  It didn't work, and if it had, the accident would not have occurred. Following the accident, a coroner’s inquest found “underfunding since the mid-1980s has contributed to the deterioration of the system and has jeopardized the safety of the TTC.”  As result, the transit commission changed its practices to make the maintenance of a state of good repair its highest spending priority. 

“The conservative politicians advocating the cuts use euphemisms like ‘efficiency’ to pretend their policies are not going to affect people when they know, or ought to know, that isn't true.”

The effect of these kind of hidden cuts is felt at all orders of government —  the Walkerton contaminated water disaster is a good example of provincial actions directly leading to a tragedy — but it is particularly challenging for cities because the vast majority of municipal spending is on actual day-to-day services.  There is nothing else left to cut in the name of “efficiency.”  Additionally, because municipal taxes (like the property tax) don’t grow with the economy, a tax “freeze” actually amounts to a cut, because inflation means that costs will rise no matter what.

We have seen it before.  In 1997, the Ontario government significantly reduced provincial funding to the City of Toronto, in a process known as downloading.  At the same time, then-Mayor Mel Lastman promised a tax freeze.  Mayor Lastman got away with it for a while because the necessary service reductions were less noticeable. But after six years of his administration, parks were less well maintained, streets were visibly dirty, and buses were extremely old and well past their design life.  Residents noticed, and my mayoral campaign, which included significant commitments to restore basic public services, was positively received by Torontonians tired of the then-visible results of these policies.

But other reductions that affect communities that aren't politically powerful may not get political attention.  For example, in my first term as mayor, with the support of federal funding from the then-Liberal federal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, Toronto opened more than 60 new childcare centres, generally in lower income neighbourhoods and always in Catholic or public schools.  These facilities are significant as they ensure children of all backgrounds have access to high-quality early learning opportunities and their parents are able to work.  Demand for such childcare is great in Toronto.  Had the second phase of the program been completed, waiting lists would have been virtually eliminated (to an average wait of three months). But it soon was cancelled, one of the first victims of the Harper government’s cuts.  The thousands of low income children and families that would have benefited have been permanently disadvantaged.  Unfortunately, voting rates are lower in low income communities, and in Toronto many of the people affected could be landed immigrants without the right to vote. 

In all of these situations, the conservative politicians advocating the cuts use euphemisms like “efficiency” to pretend their policies are not going to affect people when they know, or ought to know, that isn't true.  In the case of Toronto, any experienced elected official knows that expenditure constraint has a direct impact on services.  Yet we still see politicians calling for the TTC to provide better service at the same time as giving directions calling for significant budget cuts.  They pretend the cuts won’t have an impact and hope that the public will not notice.  But slowly and eventually, they will. 

David Miller was mayor of Toronto from 2003 to 2010. 

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