Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure plan’


Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Remember the oil filter commercial from the 1980s — the one where the mechanic suggested paying a bit more up front for a better oil filter to avoid expensive repairs later?

That was good advice — policy wonks would call it following the precautionary principle.  It applies as much to regular maintenance on cars as to climate change mitigation—measures to reduce greenhouse gases–and adaptation—policies designed to harden and adapt infrastructure to extreme weather events.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the latter, it seems the federal government decided some time ago its policy engine didn’t need an oil filter.

But if any doubt still lingered in Canada about the critical importance of hardening our infrastructure against extreme weather, it should be put to rest by the disaster that struck southern Alberta this week.

In addition to its immediate and terrifying impact on people and property, the effects of extreme weather linger much longer as their economic shock waves are felt long after the crisis has passed.

According to a report from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce the damage from the Alberta floods could strip a full percentage point from Canada’s economic growth this year.

Then there’s the cost of cleaning up the mess–which will include not only residential reconstruction but also major repairs to highway and other public infrastructure—that’s expected to top $6 billion.

That means any hopes the Alberta government had of balancing its budget in the short term are shot. And at a minimum, the post-flood clean up raises questions about the federal government’s own plans for near-term fiscal balance as Ottawa will no doubt be called in to help in the reconstruction of key economic infrastructure.

With the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other credible national and international organizations forecasting that extreme weather occurrences will increase in number and scope, one would think that mitigating their impact would be a priority for all governments.

Unfortunately, as the tortuous path followed by climate change negotiations will attest, that’s not been the case.

The economic dislocation that some fear would follow the adoption of stringent carbon reduction measures may help explain the lack of meaningful progress in the area of climate change mitigation. But there is no economic cover for inaction on adaptation, especially when the government of Canada spends billions each year on unrelated infrastructure projects.

The best explanation for the absence of a federal infrastructure adaptation strategy probably comes from a report examining the federal-municipal relationship, released three weeks ago by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The FCM report describes a relationship built around short-term considerations more likely to produce photo-ops than lasting structural fixes.

The report doesn’t assess blame on the current government, but says the mess stems form an outdated and broken federal system that blurs accountabilities–often leaving the provinces out of the loop—and encourages boutique federal programs that fail to get at the root of the problem.

Many in the municipal sector hoped that Transport minister Denis Lebel’s six-month consultations last year on a long-term infrastructure plan might provide the platform for such a strategy.

FCM and a number of other organizations including the Insurance Bureau of Canada used the consultations to call for a long-term infrastructure plan that would facilitate extreme weather adaptation in cities.

But when the federal government announced its $ 53 billion 10-year infrastructure program in the last Budget, it was silent on the question of adaptation.

The devastation that flood waters visited on communities in southern Alberta was a stark reminder of how vulnerable our cities have become to extreme weather events.  Seeing the economic capital of Alberta battered and paralyzed by the murky waters of the Saskatchewan River was sobering.

The federal government is now measuring options available to it as it considers its response to this latest weather-related disaster.

The question now is whether the scenes of devastation that played out in southern Alberta will be enough to create the political room for a fundamental re-think of the federal role in extreme weather adaptation.

In keeping with the Harper government’s focus on the bottom line, it may be time for advocates to start framing climate change adaptation as preventive maintenance for Canada’s economic engine.  With extreme weather events on the rise, we can pay now, or we can pay the piper later.


Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

This article first appeared in iPolitics under the title, “Infrastructure Minister has opportunity to strengthen federal-municipal relation.”

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.