Archive for the ‘Ottawa Politics’ Category
This Friday, as mayors and councilors from across Canada gather in Saskatoon for the opening of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) annual conference, some in attendance may note that it marks the 10th anniversary of Paul Martin’s New Deal for cities speech to the same conference, held that year in Hamilton. But it’s not likely.
While not quite up there with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or other oratory landmarks of the 20th century, Martin’s 2002 cities speech did more than get him fired from the Chrétien cabinet. It inspired hope among municipal politicians and urban advocates that Canada’s cities would finally be on the national agenda. Many even suggested that it ushered in a new era of federal-municipal partnership.
Yet, like much of Martin’s ambitious agenda, the New Deal for cities failed to live up to expectations.
Today, with the Harper government working on a new long-term infrastructure program to replace those set to expire—along with other federal transfers—in March 2014, it’s appropriate to ask what lessons the failure of Martin’s vision has for the current government.
To be fair to Paul Martin’s legacy, it is important to note that the New Deal delivered the gas tax transfer, which today pumps two billion dollars a year into city coffers for much-needed infrastructure repairs. But it took a Conservative government to make it permanent.
When it was introduced in 2005, it was as a five-year program, which did little to address the need for funding certainty required for long-term capital investments and planning. Its relatively short-term nature reflected a high-degree of skittishness on the part of federal finance (and other) officials at the prospect of longer term transfers.
In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there was more sizzle than steak to the New Deal. Any significant federal overture to municipalities along the lines hinted at in his speech was likely to raise the hackles of provincial governments and be largely unworkable, both politically and constitutionally.
His speech, 10 years later, is rife with generalities. Martin was cautious, refusing to get into specific commitments, unwilling to go all in and truly embrace—to use one of his favourite words—a transformative relationship with municipal governments and risk being called offside—not by his boss but by provincial premiers.
Yet in its day, the speech resonated because it was the first time in many years that a senior federal politician—one who aspired to the top job, no less—reached out to city governments with so much passion and apparent understanding of the issues they faced.
But if he succeeded in seducing his audience with his vision of a new relationship, Paul Martin failed to consummate it. In part, this was because his tenure was cut short by the election of the Harper government in January 2006. More importantly, it was because there was no meaningful policy framework to support it.
And this brings us back to Friday in Saskatoon. This year, it’s federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel who will deliver the keynote address to the municipal delegates. And while it’s a safe bet it won’t get him fired, his speech will be as important for Canada’s cities as Paul Martin’s.
Lebel is about one third of the way through a process he announced last November to put in place a long-term plan for infrastructure spending in this country. And while a long-term infrastructure deal lacks the excitement of a New Deal, it will likely set the terms and conditions for the federal-municipal
relationship for the next decade and beyond.
With Canada’s cities struggling under the weight of a $120-billion infrastructure deficit, and the expiry of a number of critical federal transfers to cities, including the flagship Building Canada Fund set for March 2014, municipal delegates will hanging on his every word looking for reassurances.
The minister should avoid Paul Martin’s mistakes and the urge to speak in generalities about “the vision thing”. He should use his remarks to spell out in
detail how the rest of his process will unfold and, most importantly, its policy objective, which should be very simple: eliminating the infrastructure deficit for good–because that has to be the bottom line.
Anything short of a clear commitment to fixing the problem once and for all, will perpetuate the creation of programs that fail to get at the root causes of accelerating infrastructure decay in this country.
The major constant in a 10-year backdrop of shifting federal attitudes toward municipalities has been that policies in this area have largely been dictated by the political circumstances of the day and not on the basis of clear policy considerations and objectives.
The minister now has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and break that cycle. As political oratory it won’t pack the same wallop as Paul Martin’s speech, but the outcome could be as transformative as the promise of the New Deal was bold.
The announcement last week by federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel that the federal government was kick-starting a process to develop a new long term strategy for public infrastructure investments was quickly dismissed by critics as smoke and mirrors.
With the President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at his side, the minister announced a three-step, year-long plan designed to take stock of the situation and align federal, provincial and municipal infrastructure efforts into a common strategy by 2014 when the current suite of federal programs expires.
But with Canada’s infrastructure deficit topping the $ 100 billion mark and compounding daily, many had hoped that the federal government would announce something more definitive than studies and intergovernmental consultations.
It would be tempting to dismiss this as just an example of Ottawa fiddling while our cities crumble. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a
government announced studies and consultations as a way to try and make an issue go away.
This time however, that would be wrong. In fact, last week’s announcement — if followed through – could just be the fix for Canada’s crumbling infrastructure and broken funding system.
Let’s look at the reasons why.
First, no amount of federal foot-dragging or magical thinking is going to make this particular issue go away.
By the time the current programs run their course in a couple of years, Ottawa will have been in the infrastructure funding business for two decades and will have invested over $ 30 billion while leveraging billions more from provincial and municipal governments.
Yet, not only do the problems that spurred the creation of the first infrastructure program in 1993 remain, but they’ve gotten worse with, as the collapse of a Laval overpass a few years ago reminds us, potentially deadly consequences.
In the early1980s, at the start of the cities’ campaign to get federal help for their crumbling infrastructure, the gap stood at about $ 12 billion, by 2007 studies showed the so-called infrastructure deficit had broken through the $100 billion mark. And that’s just for municipal infrastructure.
Add to that the bill for federal and provincial roads, bridges and other assorted structures and it’s easy to understand why no one level of government has claimed ownership of the problem or the solution.
Second, an overhaul of the existing programs is urgently needed. The current system of short term, ad-hoc programs favours spending on new infrastructure more than repair, and because the focus is often on getting shovels in the ground quickly, it also tends to favour spending on second and even third tier priorities.
The minister’s commitment to taking stock of what worked and what didn’t with the old programs should lead to a basic re-think of how Ottawa delivers infrastructure funding.
Third, mayors and councillors have rightly been pushing for this kind of long term thinking from Ottawa for the last ten years and, without any new funding programs in the pipeline to act as sweeteners it’s not likely they will let the government off the hook without something tangible to bring home.
Fourth, it is in the provinces’ interest to accept the minister’s invitation and come to the table and have a say on how federal infrastructure largesse will be doled out, first to try and secure the largest possible share of federal dollars for provincial infrastructure, and second, in order to finally have a say in what the programs will look like.
Finally, the growing pressure on the Harper government to deal with a number of major infrastructure challenges – the replacement of the Champlain Bridge comes to mind– gives the minister and the government a powerful incentive to try and spread the fiscal and political burden for Canada’s infrastructure building and repair more evenly across all jurisdictions. This should be a major incentive for real progress.
But what of FCM President Berry Vrbanovic’s comment that last week’s announcement amounted to “a promise to put aside band aid solutions and find the cure for the infrastructure deficit once and for all”? Wishful thinking on his part?
I’m not sure that the infrastructure minister would echo those words exactly–we all remember Paul Martin’s promise to fix health care “for a generation”. But his commitment to engage all levels of government in a collective re-think of how we finance our roads, bridges and water works, is pragmatic, gutsy and long-overdue. And it may just work.
The article by Elizabeth Thompson ran in iPolitics a few weeks ago under the headline “Twitter, Facebook and social media ‘critical’ to government, says Clement.” It was one of those stories that sail just under the mainstream media radar–an anodyne little item that didn’t make the grade in the newsrooms of the national outlets.
Speaking after an appearance before the Senate Official Languages Committee, Treasury Board President Tony Clement told iPolitcs that he wants to launch a pilot project to use social media to consult and engage Canadians more on government policies. He added that he intends to push forward with Treasury Board’s open data initiative where government information is shared openly online.
This is one story with legs. Or at least, it’s a story that should have legs. While it may not be readily apparent, few initiatives now on the government’s drawing board have the potential to transform our democracy as much as this one.
And this is a story that anyone who believes in the concepts and merits of open government or government 2.0 needs to take stock of and react to-now.
Senate reform, more MPs for rapidly growing provinces, amount to tinkering at the margins of our democratic system when compared to the transformative potential of genuine online engagement and its institutional implications.
Clement, who is one of the most active MPs on Twitter, is quoted in the article as saying that the opportunity “to use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens…is a big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government. It is very important for the future.”
He’s right. The problem is that there have been no conversations on what that conversation could or should look like.
The absence of a public debate on the merits and implications of using technology to open government up and engage more with citizens means that what has the potential to transform our institutions also runs the risk of being used to shore up the status quo.
The problem is that our system is built around incrementalism—small cautious steps that don’t rock the boat are what garner promotions in Ottawa, not proposals for sweeping institutional reform.
And citizen consultation is nothing new in government. There are well-staffed units in most federal departments that do nothing but consult and engage with citizens and interest groups.
But using new online tools to make these consultations easier does not mean we’ve embraced Government 2.0. Giving outdated concepts and approaches a fresh coat of paint will only hide the rust and cover up the cracks.
One of the challenges is that our current system of ministerial and bureaucratic accountability is not designed to easily integrate solutions that run counter to formal advice. Alternatives or contrary opinions tend to be relegated to the public environment scans of memos to cabinet, not recommended action.
Designing new government online strategies to operate on the old institutional and accountability platforms would be like putting a Ferrari body on a ’72 Pinto drive train—it’ll look nice in the garage, but don’t take it for a spin.
If the core principles of open government (data as a public good, largely unfettered access to information, implementation of citizen solutions, and democratic engagement) were implemented, they would result in a fundamental shift in how government works and thinks. It would also amount to a dramatic re-think of our democracy.
But without a compelling main-street narrative to create political space and demand for real change and without any obvious external champions for this cause the prospects of a transformative open government agenda being implemented any time soon are dim.
Open government is not a bureaucratic issue–open government is all about politics. And political leadership and decisions will be what make it happen…or not.
It’s not enough for techies and theorists to carry on amongst themselves about the virtues of new digital technologies in opening up government. It’s time for Canada’s open government evangelists step up to the plate and kick-start the debate, explain why open government matters and what the cost of half-hearted reforms would be.
A few weeks ago, Treasury Board President Tony Clement hinted at his vision: a connected more collaborative government, a bureaucracy empowered to engage directly with Canadians, the sharing of data to foster innovation. He also said Treasury Board officials were now busy developing “guidelines” that will frame this vision.
The first Treasury Board installment on that vision was released last month: a rule-bound straight jacket of a social media policy to govern public service online activities. Not an auspicious start.
Anyone that wants to see government open up better grab the perch offered by the minister now, before government’s blueprint is fully set and reputations become wed to it.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi used a tour of eastern Canada originally designed to sell his city as a business destination last week to push his second favourite subject: all that ails Canada’s cities.
The mayor used multiple speaking engagements and media interviews to hammer away at the urgency of fixing the growing imbalance between cities’ responsibilities and their capacity to pay.
He said Canada’s cities needed new sources of stable and predictable funding because their principal fiscal tool—the property tax—is outdated and not up to the task. And he warned of dire consequences for cities and for the country if that fiscal imbalance is not addressed quickly.
This is not a new hobby horse for Nenshi. In fact this is hardly news at all. He’s been talking about mending Canada’s fraying urban fabric since his election last fall. And Canada’s other big city mayors have been making exactly the same arguments for years, also calling for stable and predictable funding from Ottawa.
They even had some success. Remember the New Deal for Cities? Paul Martin’s lofty 2002 pledge of a new relationship with Canada’s cities got him fired from his job as minister of Finance.
More to the point, a few years later, that pledge netted cities the gas tax transfer, which now pumps $ 2 billion per year in city coffers across the country for infrastructure improvements.
Not surprisingly, the gas tax transfer has been immensely popular with mayors and councillors in communities of all sizes. So popular in fact, that the Harper government last year announced it would become a permanent fixture of fiscal federalism—a kind of equalization program for roads and bridges.
Talk about stable. And you can’t get much more predictable than that. So where’s the problem?
Well, it’s not the one that most of the media outlets who interviewed the Calgary mayor last week led with.
It’sreally not about cities needing more money to fix their crumbling infrastructure; or about modernizing a municipal fiscal regime better suited to a 19th century agrarian society than one in the throes of global competition; or about needing more federal dollars for affordable housing and transit.
Those are the symptoms.
To paraphrase Yogi Berra, the real problem is that it’s déjà vu all over again.
For anyone who followed the New Deal debate six or seven years ago, reading or watching an interview with mayor Nenshi today is like stepping into a time capsule. His talking points are virtually the same as those used by former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and former Toronto mayor David Miller, and countless other municipal politicians before and after.
Back then they resonated and gained traction not only in the media, but with civil society and business groups and even within the federal government–now, not so much.
Six years after the gas tax transfer, and four years after the largest infrastructure program in the history of this country municipal pleas for more federal spending are starting to sound hollow.
There’s a sense in many quarters that when it comes to cities the feds already gave at the office and it’s time to move on.
Yet, mayor Nenshi is right–just as his former colleagues were right a decade ago. Canada’s cities are struggling when they should be achieving. And with 80 percent of Canadians living in urban areas, if our cities struggle our country struggles.
But the real solutions to the problems faced by Canada’s cities are found in provincial capitals not on Parliament Hill. Only provinces can fix broken and “outdated” municipal finance systems. Only provinces can change the planning regimes that undermine sustainability.
The fundamental problem has never been about money–at least not federal money. It has always been about provincial politics and power and recognition, and that’s been a tough nut to crack.
Municipal politicians regularly get admonished by provincial governments that their local administrations are creatures of the province. Which is like saying “I put you here, I can take you out”.
But like it or not, they’re right. That’s the constitutional hand our founding fathers dealt us.
And the mayors are also right in pointing out that the government of Canada has a vested interest–if not a constitutional responsibility–in seeing our cities prosper.
So, how do they break the logjam and work toward lasting fixes?
First, they have to stop focusing only on federal spending (particularly in the current fiscal context). Federal infrastructure spending runs the risk of becoming less of a New Deal and more of a kind of permanent Marshal Plan for cities, and it’s not working. As mayor Nenshi pointed out, billions in federal investments have not fixed the problem.
Second, they need to change their song sheet and strategy. What cities need most from Ottawa now is leadership.
Canada’s mayors need to come together and push for a national vision of urban Canada. And while Ottawa can’t impose its blueprint in an area of provincial jurisdiction, it can lead a collaborative intergovernmental process to define what our cities should look like in 25 years.
Third, they need to seize the opportunity that the 2014 expiry of key transfer programs presents and push for the inclusion of cities on the fed/prov agenda.
Ultimately however, all the mayors can do is create political room for their vision. Only Ottawa can lead the way.
As MPs return from their summer recess, a number of storylines—from Nycole Turmel’s political inexperience to Bob Dechert’s flirtations to turmoil at National Defense HQ–are coming into focus and will bear following. None will be as important for the future of the government however, as how Prime Minister Harper stickhandles his deficit reduction agenda through a fall sitting that will likely be dominated by sour global economic news.
The Prime Minister has a lot going for him at the start of this session. He enjoys a healthy majority in both the House and Senate and is in the enviable position of being the only non-interim leader of a major party in the House.
With the stronger legislative engine the May 2 election gave him, some observers suggest that the road is clear for an ambitious agenda that includes a massive overhaul of Canada’s crime legislation and policy, Senate reform and a markedly slimmer federal government.
That is far from certain.
While rent-a-cops may be pulling traffic duty on the Opposition benches, they are still in a position to slow the government’s legislative plans, particularly if their arguments gain traction in public opinion.
Majority or not, the Prime Minister runs the risk of seeing his agenda of institutional change run aground if Parliament becomes gridlocked because of worsening economic conditions and political opportunism.
After all, who wants to see their government push Senate reform when the economy is tanking?
For the Prime Minister, how well he finesses this will be measured less by the level of short term political pain than by how well he safeguards his ability to implement key planks of his non-economic platform and lay the foundations for a lasting conservative legacy.
The challenge for Prime Minister Harper and his government this fall will be to craft a narrative and a policy approach that balances political and economic imperatives.
As currently crafted, the dominant story—going from funding roads and bridges to cutting government workers and programs–won’t be an easy one to explain or sell to Canadians.
First, the public can be forgiven for not “getting” this coming policy shift as the same conditions that are now creeping into daily newscasts–a stumbling economy and flat jobs growth–were cited as the reasons for the 2009 stimulus-laden Economic Action Plan.
Second, the story coming from the U.S. is all about stimulus, as president Obama is taking one more kick at the Keynesian can. His massive economic package, unveiled last week, aims at recovering jobs and boosting consumer demand.
While Obama’s approach sets his administration apart from many European governments that have opted for austerity measures, the news from Washington has more immediacy and impact for Canadians than stories from Berlin or Paris.
The task for the Prime Minister and his front bench lies less in attacking the Opposition–of whom the public care little about–than in reassuring Canadians that they have a plan and explaining how it will work to safeguard jobs of which the public cares a great deal about.
With the economic news continuing to be gloomy–the Toronto Dominion bank revised its 2011 growth forecast from 2.8 to 2.2 percent and its 2012 forecast from 2.5 to 1.9 percent—in the next few days look for a subtle shift in the government’s narrative away from strict deficit reduction toward a balanced approach that includes protecting jobs.
If there is no marked improvement in the economic outlook by early November, expect the government to take a page out of Jean Chretien’s 1994-95 playbook and push a new government narrative revolving around cutting unnecessary expenditures—getting our house in order–while spending on public infrastructure and jobs.
While we are not likely to see the stimulus spigots opened to the extent they were under the Economic Action Plan, we might see the renewal of elements of the Building Canada Fund, the government’s flagship infrastructure program.
Although the government’s deficit reduction action plan may be temporarily sidelined as a branding narrative, every indication is that all federal departments and agencies will continue to have all of their spending—program and operations—placed under a microscope, and a scalpel.
A subtle shift in tone and policy will provide political cover for the government’s austerity plans, and more importantly, help keep Prime Minister Harper’s transformative legacy agenda on the rails.