“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”
Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz
Federal politicians attending the meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver last weekend might be forgiven for feeling a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
For years the FCM conference had been the place where prime ministers and wannabe prime ministers came to lavish mayors and their cities, towns and villages with promises of federal programs and federal dollars.
It was also the place for the heaping of praise and gratitude on prime and other ministers for delivering on said promises.
On rare occasions, like Paul Martin’s 2002 New Deal speech, some of them spoke of fixing a broken system that was keeping Canadian cities at the back of the global pack. But the expectation seemed to be that the really good applause line would always be about the money.
Political handlers and speechwriters in Ottawa must have been scrambling when they received advance copies last week of an FCM report that emphatically states that it’s really not about the money.
In fact, the FCM report, titled The State of Canada’s Cities and Communities 2013, suggests that Ottawa’s chequebook fixation is really what’s wrong with the system.
The report says that until the federal government owns up to this and starts measuring success not by how many dollars it spends but by how many problems it fixes, Canada’s cities—and by extension the country–will continue to struggle.
Coming from an organization and a sector that over the last decade has arguably been the most successful in advocating for more federal spending this can seem a little odd if not downright ungrateful.
It’s actually gutsy, smart and important. Let’s look at why.
It’s important because FCM’s report forces us to look behind the curtain and take the full measure of the Great Oz that is how Ottawa decides.
While the report pulls its punches somewhat and avoids detailed critiques of federal programs aimed at cities, it does paint a picture of a system built around short-term considerations and lubricated by political expediency.
And this should matter to all Canadians, particularly those who care how their tax dollars are spent.
It’s also smart.
FCM is careful—and rightly so–not to point fingers at any one government or political party.
At the root of the problem is not pandemic venality but a 21st century political relationship governed by a 19th century Constitution.
Under our Constitution, the federal government has no direct role vis-à-vis local governments, but this has not kept it from using its spending power to intervene in municipal affairs, particularly in the area of infrastructure funding.
It’s not surprising. After all investing in roads, bridges, wastewater systems and even bocce courts gives even the most fiscally conservative MP something tangible to write about in their householder.
It’s great to talk about trade deals and fighter jets and tough on crime policies, but when you want to explain to your constituents what it is exactly you do for them, it’s nice to be able to point to something with three dimensions from time to time.
Let’s not kid ourselves, therein lies the political appeal of the federal-municipal relationship.
But while the announcement of a 10-year funding program in the last federal budget will keep MPs well stocked with ribbons to cut and signs to post for at least two election cycles, it would put FCM’s advocacy caravan on blocks for a decade. Unless, that is, FCM opened another front in the federal-municipal relationship—which its report does.
But most of all, the report is gutsy.
It would have been easy for FCM to sugar coat its analysis to spare federal sensitivities. There will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth in more than a few federal offices, but the gentler, kinder version federal officials would have preferred would also have missed the mark.
The report names the problem: An outdated system that gives governments cover for short-term, politically motivated policies and inaction in the face of growing cross-jurisdictional policy challenges
Worse, the report says the current system helps create the illusion of action through the proliferation of boutique federal programs that provide visibility but little in the form of accountability.
So what’s the answer?
Rightly, FCM rejects any talk of opening up the constitution. It tried that in the early 90’s and it was a dead end.
Instead, it calls for a clear federal policy and accountability framework to govern federal programs in this area.
In practical terms, it would mean that federal policies would come with a clear expression of the federal interest, measurable outcomes and an incentive to design programs that actually do what they’re supposed to do.
It sounds simple, but achieving it won’t be.
Judging by the speeches delivered by federal politicians at the FCM conference, it will take time for them to digest what the cities’ new agenda means for them and their respective narratives.
FCM invited us to peek behind the curtain. It’s challenge is now keeping it open.