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 National Urban Policy
- A National Housing Policy
- A National Transportation Policy
- An effective National Climate Change Strategy
- New funding and legislative tools for cities
- Future economic stimulus focused on "smart growth" not "shovel-ready"
- Tax reforms to reflect full-cost accounting for housing choices
- Federal tax incentives for new rental housing
- Reinstatement of the long-form census
- 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.