The Federal Government Ignores Our Cities, Again


The Liberal government in Ottawa announced its budget yesterday. As this was Prime Minister Jean Chretien's last budget, he looked to leave a legacy for his country and had Finance Minister John Manley release a spending plan designed to please as many people as possible. And, as so often happens when one tries to please everybody, he ended up pleasing nobody very well.

I'm quite disappointed with this budget. It was good in parts, and it doesn't put us in deficit, but it doesn't deliver on much of its promise. What with the leaks and rumours and working papers from Liberal MPs in committee, it sounded as though the 2003 budget would unveil real help for our beleaguered cities. This would have been an excellent legacy to leave to our country. There is no doubt that our cities need the help. As Canada's urbanization increases its pace, we must invest now to ensure that our urban areas can handle the growth of the future. Toronto needs funding for its public transit. It needs expanded subways. It needs a housing plan. Ideally, it, along with the other cities in Canada could use greater powers of taxation in order to raise the money needed itself, but money granted from the provincial and federal levels of government would work just as well.

Finance Minister John Manley made a lot of noise about helping cities invest in their future, offering a nice round figure of $3 billion for urban infrastructure. People weren't overjoyed when they saw the fine print: money phased in over ten years, to twenty cities, for all infrastructure needs instead of just public transit. If the TTC gets more than $10 million out of this allotment, it will be lucky.

The budget did not even deliver on an promising proposal to make transit passes tax deductible. This small measure would not have cost the federal government much, and it would have redressed one of the many hidden subsidies our automobile lifestyle enjoys. Consider: no-one thinks twice if an employer paves a lot of land and offers you a free parking space, but if that same employer hands you a monthly transit pass, that's considered extra income. Liberal MP Judy Sgro worked hard to bring this measure about and, although she would not say it publicly, a number of newspaper columnists noted her disappointment over her government's inaction.

My anger at the federal government should be moderated by the fact that the federal government doesn't have the responsibility to look after our cities. The provinces have that responsibility and our provincial government has done a horrible job keeping its end up. However, the federal government has talked and talked about the need to invest in our cities' future, and Canadians are starting to realize just how cheap talking is.

Recently, the federal government criticized the Ontario government for backing out of all public transit funding altogether, and then made noises about spending some money in the field itself. However, the federal government was caught flat footed when the Ontario government called the bluff and offered up a firm proposal to split the cost of public transit three ways (federally, provincially and municipally). At that moment, the federal Minister of Transportation, David Collenette, started hemming and hawing. One could chuckle at the Fed's embarrassment, if it didn't mean that the cities were, once again, screwed.

The federal government likes to paint itself as a forward-thinking, progressive administration. It ratified the Kyoto Accord and it spoke long into the night about urban investment, but until it gets serious and opens up its pocketbooks, its words are meaningless, and its actions are no more than handwaving. Unless a serious commitment is made and backed up with funds, one can only assume that the federal government doesn't care about the health of our cities, and is only making these noises to curry the favour of Canada's urban voters.

This isn't a legacy. It's visionless opportunism, and I'm getting sick of it.

Let me take a moment and plug a special blog by Andrew Spicer. Earlier in my blogging history, I had vague notions of pontificating on urban affairs in general and Toronto affairs in particular. These, I thought, were my strong suits. Andrew, however, has his fingers on the pulse of Toronto's urban issues much more than I could ever hope. He's closer to the news sources, and he pulls together the information with a strong urban vision so very well. It's for this reason that he's on my list of list of links.

And it was through him that I discovered that Warren Kinsella had a blog. That's another interesting read. What next? A PMO Blog?

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