Here we go again. The general consensus from the Canadian media seems to be that, so far, this election is just a tired rehash of the last one. At least one issue is different, however: cities. In this space just eighteen months ago, I sounded a sigh of disappointment with what the 2004 election offered for Canada's urban areas. The Conservatives had no urban platform to speak of, the Liberals' "New Deal for Cities" seemed hopelessly ambivalent and it was uncertain how much strength the pro-urban NDP would wield in the thirty-eighth Parliament.
We all know what happened next. A Liberal minority government was elected, and even though the NDP wasn't strong enough to form the balance of power, Jack Layton was able to push his way into the crowd of decision-makers and rewrite the budget, delivering on his campaign promise to secure $1.6 billion for affordable housing. Meanwhile, "Team Martin" actually released some of the gas tax money it had pledged to municipalities-$600 million, to be precise. The government also laid the groundwork for billions of dollars in municipal GST rebates over the next several years.
Of course, there are still many unresolved issues. In an election platform released last month, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) insisted that cities must be given a say on important matters and more power to raise taxes and manage their own interests. Intergovernmental cooperation is a top priority for the FCM, especially on issues such as affordable housing and the environment. The organization specifically calls for an end to the "infrastructure deficit," the cost of upgrading urban infrastructure which is now estimated to be $60 billion. The FCM is right-Canada's cities cannot succeed without new municipal powers and more cooperation between all three levels of government. Urban issues are numerous and diverse. Along with infrastructure, housing and the environment, you can add immigration, crime and child care to the list of things that have a direct impact on the life of our cities.
To find out more about these things, I talked to John Lorinc, urban politics columnist for Toronto Life and the author of the soon-to-be-published The New City: How the Crisis of Canada's Urban Regions Is Reshaping Our Nation. One vital issue that has been largely overlooked, says Lorinc, is our cities' role in environmental change. "I did an assessment of federal spending on highways and the federal government is ploughing a lot of money into [them] these days. This seems to run counter to their rhetoric on environmental stewardship." A significant chunk of pollution comes from urban areas. More federal support for mass transit, sustainable development, green roofs and environmentally-friendly buildings in Canada's cities could have an enormously positive impact-as could a carbon tax that favours green industries, a concept currently making waves in British Columbia. "But all that seems to have fallen off the agenda," notes Lorinc.
So what, then, can urbanites expect from the four major parties in this election? The Liberals, naturally, are running on their recent achievements, pointing to the investments made with money from gas tax transfers, transit and infrastructure funding and GST rebates. "They have a pretty reasonable track record," says Lorinc. "But I think they can be criticized for spreading the infrastructure money around too thinly instead of focusing on the big cities." The Liberals' child care plan is certainly ambitious and clearly targeted towards urban and suburban working parents. Similarly, Paul Martin's call for a complete ban on handguns is meant to sway voters in the cities, especially Toronto and Vancouver, both of which have seen an uptick in gun violence. The Liberals have also proposed eliminating the $975 landing fee forced upon immigrants since 1995-a move which might not seem so opportunistic had it not been the Liberals who imposed the fee in the first place.
Despite his reputation, Stephen Harper is never one to miss a party, and so he too is pledging to scrap the landing fee. Although he does not support a ban on handguns-his Western base would crucify him-Harper has also joined hands with Martin in calling for reverse-onus bail hearings, in which those charged with a gun crime must prove why they shouldn't go to jail. What has really caught the attention of many urban dwellers, though, is the Conservative's proposed tax credit for transit passes. A Stephen Harper government would take $400 million from the 2005 budget's climate change fund and give it back to transit riders, some of whom could save hundreds of dollars per year under the plan. Nearly everyone agrees that the tax credit is sorely needed, but it's a decidedly conservative approach to promoting public transit. Without heavy capital investment in transit systems across Canada, the tax credit will be like raisins in a bran muffin: tasty but ultimately superfluous. There is an even bigger hole in the Tories' platform-the complete lack of support for affordable housing. "Even bank economists say this is a big problem," notes Lorinc.
The Bloc Québécois' platform is similarly thin when it comes to cities. It promises to fight for an annual reinvestment of $2 billion in affordable housing, along with new social housing policies. There is no mention of investment for public transit in Montreal and Quebec City and no promise to push for repairs to Montreal's crumbling streets and ancient water pipes. In fact, the Bloc's main focus is on securing more money for Quebec's struggling rural regions.
That leaves us with the NDP. Throughout the campaign, Jack Layton has eagerly pointed to the money he scored for affordable housing in the so-called "NDP budget." His party promises to make the gas tax transfer permanent, bump up the portion of it given to cities to a full five cents per litre, and eradicate the infrastructure deficit within twenty years. The NDP also wants to include municipal leaders in decisions that affect their cities. None of this should be a surprise-the NDP has had the most city-friendly platform of all four parties ever since Layton became leader. He was, after all, a president of the FCM and a Toronto city councillor for nearly two decades. What's more, he both lives in and represents inner-city neighbourhoods and gets around town by transit and bicycle.
For the Tories, Lorinc muses, focusing on urban issues is designed to appeal to suburban voters in Toronto and Vancouver. "It's an electoral strategy, not a philosophy, whereas for Layton, and to a lesser extent Martin, I think it's a more organic thing." Federal government policy affects cities yet municipal leaders have little say in Ottawa. As more city-dwellers become aware of this situation, the influence of Canada's metropolitan areas will only increase; politicians will have no choice but to listen. Today, says Lorinc, "Canadian cities have more clout and they have a bigger voice. This is a well-established trend in power politics. When cities reach a certain size and their economies reach a critical mass, they try to gain more autonomy for themselves. They have that kind of confidence."
For cities, Election 2006 offers more hope than Election 2004. Even if most parties are not quite as attuned to urban needs as they ought to be, they have at least discovered something important: that Canada is a mostly urban nation. Urban issues matter to Canadians.
Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve's urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.