Canada's federal election: what's in it for cities?

Post by Mike Klassen in

16 comments

canada-party-leaders
You're not hearing the leaders talk about Canada's cities

We're often reminded lately that up to eightly per cent of Canadians live in urban areas. Even though most of us live in cities and surrounding suburbs, would you know it from reading the platforms of the federal parties in the current election?

If you want to be honest with yourself about the goals of the 2011 federal election, you'd surmise that the real focus is about a strategic set of ridings which will either give Prime Minister Stephen Harper his coveted majority or not. As a result the platforms of the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP are heavily skewed to a select set of voters, such as seniors. Several campaigns are doing backflips to support "families" as well.

Amazingly, the issues which face cities – which is to say the majority of Canadians – are barely on the radar of any of the five major parties.

For all their campaign hyperbole and over-the-top negative ads, none of Canada's four federal parties with elected members in the House of Commons has a true platform plank for cities. Even the lowly Green Party, who haven't got a snowball's chance of even electing a single MP, have buried a set of ideas about investing in cities within a wordy 132-page platform document that would have made Tolstoy blush.

Before the writ was dropped one civic leader in the country was attempting to put cities on the agenda. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi made this rather colourful explanation of Canada's political reality:

I would hope to see a real commitment to understanding that we deliver the services that Canadians use every hour of every day. We do not have the revenue sources or the authority to deliver those services as effectively as we could. If the federal government disappeared today, it would probably be a week or two before most Canadians noticed. If the provincial governments disappeared, unless you were in school or the hospital, it might be a couple days before you noticed.

If the municipal governments disappeared, you’d have no transit, no roads, no lights and no clean water. You’d notice because you’d be dead.

You can't say that Nenshi hasn't attempted to be at least a diplomatic advocate for Canada's cities. He put it most bluntly by saying, "I don’t care how I get the money, but I need the money." I've listened carefully to Nenshi's comments, and see that he takes care not to ruffle the feathers of federal politicians with his demands. That's smart politics.

In Vancouver however, hardly a day goes by without some kind of poke at the Feds, which explains why our city usually gets passed over lately by the folks in Ottawa.

The recent Liberal "Family Pack" platform document throws a bone to cities, but the promises are vague. On page 17 of the 94-page platform there's one bullet which mentions investing in rapid transit to provide alternative to automobiles. But it's listed under a line about supporting improvements to highways and major roads (to enhance trade), and a promise to consider high-speed rail in dense intercity corridors.

Compare these few lines to the pages within the document on agriculture, international aid, supporting rural communities and reforming the military. The Liberals are touting an "Affordable Housing Framework" that is also light on details. Many of Canada's mayors keep asking for affordable housing solutions, but struggle to find the answers which exist in their own backyard using zoning and even new construction methods to achieve affordability.

Maybe I've missed something but when you visit the NDP's website and click "platform" there's not a lot of beef, and certainly no mention of the word "city." The NDP seem to be wholly focused on older voters with promises to double pension contributions, reducing the cost of "home essentials" such as heating, and investing more funds into home care.

And yes, they too want to put "families" at the top of the heap.

As I mentioned earlier, with the ruling Conserative's party focused on key swing ridings, and seats in Canada's major cities remaining elusive for Harper & co., I'm not surprised that the Tories have no cities platform. The Conservatives have come on board in the past for funding major infrastructure such as the Canada Line, and of course they provided stimulus funding which cities poured into sewers and sidewalks across the country. While not a new commitment, the Tories also enshrined the gas tax fund in legislation for infrastructure in cities and towns (thanks, JK for the reminder on this).

As for any broad statements by the Conservatives about helping cities build for their futures, I simply don't see it.

The Bloc Québécois aren't very generous with campaign declarations in English, so I ended up reading their 2008 platform which I gather is the same as the 2011 promise – which is free the Quebec nation from Canada.

Back to the Green Party for a moment, if you had up to five weeks of free national publicity available in order to advocate for ideas to save the planet, would you waste your breath on whether your leader can be on a televised debate no one will watch? Watching the Green Party in action is about as much fun as reading Wikipedia, which is what all their campaign materials read like.

The Green Party does have some worthwhile principles on supporting denser, low-carbon emission cities with good transportation options. But the party's platform document and corresponding website reads like a PhD thesis, and is D-U-L-L. The Green Party should be all about cities, because it's how we build our urban areas which will have the biggest impact on saving the planet. Furthermore the green message resonates loudest in cities, not in rural Canada.

A body calling itself the Council for Canadian Urbanism (CanU) sent out a 10-point "call to action" addressed to all federal parties in an open letter. CanU's list is a tall order:

  1. A National Urban Policy
  2. A National Housing Policy
  3. A National Transportation Policy
  4. An effective National Climate Change Strategy
  5. New funding and legislative tools for cities
  6. Future economic stimulus focused on "smart growth" not "shovel-ready"
  7. Tax reforms to reflect full-cost accounting for housing choices
  8. Federal tax incentives for new rental housing
  9. Reinstatement of the long-form census
  10. Electoral reform for proportionate representation in urban areas

While I salute CanU's objectives, my advice would have to not ask for things the ruling government opposes outright, such as the long-form census. While good data is important, the smarter political strategy would have been to leave that one out.

The Council itself features an impressive list of city makers, with Vancouver's Brent Toderian as its current president. Perhaps what they need in their group is a little more political punch, including a federal Liberal and Tory insider to guide them. While their goals may be in the best interests of Canadian cities, navigating the often murky political waters is sometimes the only way to get things done.

So will Canada's cities get something out of this election? If there is I don't see it.

- post by Mike. Follow @MikeKlassen or @CityCaucus on Twitter.

16 Comments

"Green Party, who haven't got a snowball's chance of even electing a single MP"

I guess you haven't been following the action in Elizabeth May's riding of Saanich/Gulf Islands.

Mike,

While I generally agree with what you're saying, I do feel that enshrining the gas tax fund into law does provide something to cities...albeit not something new...but ensuring those funds keep flowing for regional transit projects is a good thing...I just wish they'd increase it.

Basically I agree with your points in this post and would like to see some intelligent debate on urban issues as part of this election, but ...

Do we really want federal parties (or even provincial parties) getting too involved in urban issues? I would rather solve the urban issues at the urban level.

What we really need is (i) a shift a taxation authority from the federal and provincial level to the municipal level and (ii) strong city charters that give cities and their residents some autonomy from the actions of the - 'senior' levels of government.

What percentage if the taxes collected from Vancouver are spent in Vancouver?

@Jason, thanks for the reminder on this. I saw it earlier and have updated the post. You're right, not new, but good to have it as secure funding.

@Don Barthel. You're right, I've not been paying close attention to the Saanich riding. Call me a skeptic (one of many out there), but if the Greens finally pull this one off I say congratulations to them.

Jason,

Where does it state that gas tax funds flow into regional transit projects?

Ok, I thought you meant they currently do. I find it incredibly stupid that the government charges a gas tax under the pretense of environmental or 'green' benefits but then that money goes into the big pot that ends up building more highways!

cut all taxes by 10 percent, cut all government by 10 percent, cut all government regulations by 10 percent and you would have a modest start toward creating real wealth for the average canadian. those who suck off the government teat have to be controlled. we are going broke, much like the u.s., spending money on useless programs and bureaucracy that free people do not need. come on get behind someone who will follow through on reducing government. oh, i forgot, there is no such person.

There are way too many hands extended for federal monies and too little money available right now. Ottawa has to reduce its spending to get the deficit back in line. That means less for everyone including cities. Let us not go down the path of the Americans, Icelanders, Irish, Greeks, and British. Let us maintain a proper sense of financial stability. Our kids will thank us.
If the Mayor of Calgary needs money to rebuild that city's infrastructure, then he can raise taxes to solve his own problems. That is as it should be.

I agree that we do not want to get deeper into deficits and that cities should be responsible for their own finances. Politics and policies should not be about give aways. But current municipal governments have few tax levers to pull and this leads to distorted taxation systems. That is why I think that taxation powers should be shifted away from the federal and provincial levels to the municipal level. Let's move towards bottom up networks and away from top down hierarchies.

It is irresponsible to cut taxes until the deficit is eliminated, not reduced, eliminated. Period. In terms of regulations, the best approach is to rewrite all regulations so that they stipulate outcomes and not procedures. Say what the outcome has to be and then let people and the private sector figure out how to achieve it. Nobody and certainly not the government knows the best way to achive any specific outcome. We need to start by cutting regulations inside Vancouver - there are too many regulations around zoning, planning, etc. One thing I would like to see, any law passed automatically expires after XX years, that would include laws that provide funding to government departments. One reason the private sector works is that companies go bankrupt and free up their captured resources. In government organizations, programs and laws tend to stay around much too long.

@ SF: "...taxation powers should be shifted away from the federal and provincial levels to the municipal level. Let's move towards bottom up networks and away from top down hierarchies."

An interesting perspective on an old notion.

"...rewrite all regulations so that they stipulate outcomes and not procedures... - there are too many regulations around zoning, planning, etc."

Not as easy as it sounds, and it tends to require a special kind of staff to properly evaluate those "outcomes".

Bill - What Steve Forth says is still worthy of a try, though - especially outcome-oriented regulations.

For instance, building codes have moved away from 'regulatory' language towards prescriptive outcomes in the last iteration, and there is some success (especially the City of Vancouver's much more palatable approach to Part 10 and the restoration of older buildings).

Worth exploring an extension of the idea.

You are right Bill, that outcome style regulation is not simple, and in some cases will lead to unanticipated (and unwelcome) consequences. But we have to make regulation simpler and more transparent and accept that no one knows or can know all the answers. I expect that this will require fewer but more capable (more highly paid) city staff.

Actually, there is a party that supports cities and is talking about it in the campaign.

The NDP care about urban voters.

See sections 2.6 - Investing in Critical Infrastructure, and 4.4 - Strengthening Public Transit for Liveable Cities
in the NDP Platform.
http://www.ndp.ca/platform

From 2.6:
"- Funding urban public transit with an additional cent of the existing gas tax.
- Significant new funding for affordable and social housing
- Made-in-Canada federal procurement policy for investments in public transit, infrastructure and other key investments
- Continuing current federal infrastructure funding commitments, like those under the Building Canada Fund."

From 4.4:
"- We will enact a National Public Transit Strategy in order to maintain and expand public transit across the country, with a clear mechanism for sustainable, predictable and long-term funding
- We will immediately allocate another cent of the existing gas tax to public transit funding for municipalities
- We will encourage transit use by providing tax exemption for employee workplace-based transit passes."

Actually, there is a party that supports cities and is talking about it in the campaign.

The NDP care about urban voters.

See sections 2.6 - Investing in Critical Infrastructure, and 4.4 - Strengthening Public Transit for Liveable Cities
in the NDP Platform.
http://www.ndp.ca/platform

From 2.6:
"- Funding urban public transit with an additional cent of the existing gas tax.
- Significant new funding for affordable and social housing
- Made-in-Canada federal procurement policy for investments in public transit, infrastructure and other key investments
- Continuing current federal infrastructure funding commitments, like those under the Building Canada Fund."

From 4.4:
"- We will enact a National Public Transit Strategy in order to maintain and expand public transit across the country, with a clear mechanism for sustainable, predictable and long-term funding
- We will immediately allocate another cent of the existing gas tax to public transit funding for municipalities
- We will encourage transit use by providing tax exemption for employee workplace-based transit passes."

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