Another rollicking episode of Meet the Suppressed: the Bloggers Hotstove wherein we diss Bernard Shapiro, reaffirm our commitment to Afghanistan, reform the Senate and tackle health care. We don’t shy away from the hard topics here. Oh, and we agree that Jack Layton deserves the Oscar for Best Actor in parliament. It depends on your definition of “actor”, of course. Is he a performer, or one who acts, or both? Anyway, you can have a listen here.
During the previous election campaign, a good site to visit was Greg Bester’s Sinister Thoughts. While a staunch New Democrat, he has been a very respectful blogger, attracting the respect of people across the political spectrum. For this reason, he was a natural counterbalance to Greg Staples and Bob Tarantino for the multi-partisan Meet the Suppressed Bloggers Hotstove.
In the comments, a number of Conservative commentators, like Damian Brooks, showed their respect for Greg Bester by expressing a wish that the Conservatives and the NDP might one day sit down and actually have a respectful debate of issues, and while parliamentarians don’t appear to be living up to this ideal, I take the bloggers at their word. Now that we have another minority parliament, with every party on a very short leash, I optimistically hope that we might still have these respectful debates may take place. But what do we talk about?
I’m just one man, but in the hope of starting a respectful debate, somebody has to propose, so I would like to feed in my ideas of what should be the priority for parliament in the years to come. I have many ideas, but I have tried to narrow my priorities down to a top five. I realize that these are just my priorities, and they may not conform to other people’s priorities, but in this type of debate, somebody has to get the ball rolling. So, here goes.
Item 1: Urban Affairs
I have written a lot about this issue, but that’s because I’m certain it’s important. How we handle urban issues over the next ten years will determine this country’s economic health for decades to follow. Already, most Canadians live in urban centres, and their numbers and percentages are growing. Outside of commodities, our cities are where most of this country’s economic wealth is going to be generated. This is not just a trend for us, but for the world. Increasingly, our cities are going to find themselves in competition with the other great and not-so-great urban centres of the world.
And here we have a problem. Our infrastructure is ageing. Our roads and bridges need work, as do our water and sewer systems. Our major centres need hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild and expand their public transit networks. Congestion is costing businesses billions of dollars per year in added transportation costs and delayed production. Ontario alone estimates that its municipalities have an infrastructure debt of $100 billion, and this doesn’t include the social costs that our provinces and feds have placed on our cities, from integrating new immigrants to running (and paying for) most of the country’s social programs (including education).
And while all these needs knock on our cities’ doors, our cities are finding it increasingly difficult to meet these obligations. Most of the country’s taxation powers rest with our provincial and federal governments, who have tended to use our cities as cash cows to fund their own agendas. Our cities run the risk of experiencing the problem American cities experienced during the 1970s when a flight of capital and well-to-do residents from the cores rendered cities such as Detroit poster-boys of urban blight, high crime and decay. Nobody in an urban area does well economically when the core has been allowed to rot. International investment tends to stay away when downtowns cease to be good places to be.
Today, Toronto is struggling to close a $300 million shortfall, thanks to social programs required by provincial legislation, a blatant $120 million provincial education levy that applies nowhere else in the province, and the weight of running the largest police force in the country as well as keeping hundreds of miles of roads and tracks clean and in a state of good repair. To cover similar shortfalls, cities across most of Canada have in their hands a limited set of development charges and a regressive system of property taxes. And they must also compete with a ring of suburbs which have acres of developable farmland to tap in order to keep their business taxes low. All of our major cities are struggling with aging infrastructure and a political system that encourages sprawl and places hefty burdens on inner-city taxpayers.
It is fair and Canadian to expect that our cities should subsidize the economic wellbeing of the rest of the country, but our provinces and our federal government must be careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Care must be taken to ensure that our cities remain economically healthy so that they can maintain their responsibilities. Remember, they are up against competition from, among others, American urban centres, which have received billions of dollars from the U.S. government to revitalize their cores. American urban centres also have the advantage of increased powers, to tax in different ways then simply the value of one’s property and to control their development.
This is the quandary that Canadian cities face. They have substantial obligations to meet, substantial challenges to face, and little power with which to face it. Under our constitution, our provinces have sole responsibility for urban affairs. Queen’s Park could vote to eliminate all municipal councils in Ontario, and they’d be constitutionally in the right. Part of the reason the cities face these challenges is because the provinces have abrogated their responsibilities. To take one example: Mike Harris eliminated provincial funding for the Toronto Transit Commission and all other transit agencies in Ontario soon after coming to power. McGuinty has yet to restore all the money.
With American centres receiving billions of dollars of support from their federal government, and with our provincial governments asleep at the switch, there has been increasing pressure throughout the 1990s and into the early part of this decade for the federal government of Canada to step in. This has been fed by signals from the Liberals that some help would be provided. Thanks to some cajoling from the New Democrats, limited funding has arrived. But now that the Conservatives in charge, there is some question over whether this support can, or should, continue.
Urban affairs is a provincial responsibility, and the Liberals were technically intruding on provincial jurisdiction when they provided funding. The last time I blogged about the need for the federal government to address urban affairs, somebody asked me why I was demanding federal assistance when it was the provinces who were responsible for cities. I replied that I didn’t particularly care who provided the funding, as long as funding was provided. The Conservatives’ 2004 election platform did not speak to an urban agenda, but it suggested transferring as much as five cents of the federal gas tax to the provinces so they could do their job.
I’m okay with that. As long as somebody acknowledges that urban affairs are an important issue, and then backs up that statement with resources, then I will be happy. If the Conservatives decide to follow through on the Liberal promises, that would be good. But if the Conservatives say “no, this is a provincial matter, and we will back out of this jurisdiction and give the provinces the resources to do their jobs,” that would also be good.
But the Conservative government should be aware that it is in our cities that most Canadians reside, and it is in our cities that this country’s economic health will be maintained. There is a national interest in ensuring that our cities remain a place where business can be easily conducted, residents enjoy a high quality of life, and our economies continue to grow.
Next on my List: