National AffairsOpinionPolitics

Does PM really think housing isn’t his job?

By Edward Keenan / August 11, 2023

No one is paying me for political communications strategy advice, I admit. But if I was advising a federal government who had fallen behind in polls and was trying to reverse that trend ahead of an upcoming election, I would have a fairly simple message to start: Whatever you do, do not say again and again that you consider dealing with the biggest issue of concern to Canadians to be someone else’s job.

This may seem obvious. But the current Liberal government of Justin Trudeau seems insistent on claiming housing affordability isn’t their department. Even as headlines scream about federally admitted refugees sleeping on the street for lack of shelter spaces, rents on small apartments require professional-scale salaries to be barely affordable, and purchasing a home requires decades of savings to be possible even for upper-income families, the Liberal team has been saying this just isn’t really, properly, their concern.

First, late last month, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote a scolding letter in response to Mayor Olivia Chow’s requests for federal assistance, saying that city business is the domain of the provinces and Chow should hang up and dial the premier.

Then, early last week, lest anyone think this was a rogue missive from Freeland, the prime minister himself said, “I’ll be blunt as well. Housing isn’t a primary federal responsibility. It’s not something that we have direct carriage of.”

And then, in the Star on Friday, we heard from federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller that housing refugees is a “provincial responsibility,” and then from a parade of Toronto-area Liberal MPs peddling the same line.

This is very clearly not a series of off-the-cuff gaffes. This is, bizarrely, a communications strategy. Cross out “Hope and hard work” and “Fighting for the middle class and those hoping to join it” on the campaign posters, and pencil in the new slogan: “Your biggest concerns are not our job.”

It’s difficult to explain the ways in which this is wrong.

But the first one, as I wrote in an email newsletter to This Week in Politics subscribers recently, is that if you keep telling voters the big issues are someone else’s job, they may soon decide during an election to make those issues someone else’s job – by relieving you of your own job.

Voters in general do not give a crap about jurisdictional niceties, and do not accept arguments about them in response to their complaints. I’ve long heard from municipal politicians who hear complaints about the HST and Bank of Canada interest rates or about hospital waiting times – areas the city has no control over whatsoever – on doorsteps.

The smart ones don’t try to pass the buck (even to where it belongs), they talk about what they will do in areas they can control: dealing with affordability and tax concerns at the municipal level, advocating strongly to the other levels of government demanding better for city residents, softening the edges of these problems using city agencies like public health or shelter and housing.

You don’t say, “Your problem is not my job.” You say “I’ll make it my job to use the tools I have available to help you with your problem.”

But more than that, housing is an area of federal responsibility, and has long been accepted to be such. For instance, during the Second World War, the federal government sought to guarantee housing for every returning veteran and their family, which led to the construction of all those “strawberry box” bungalows that define the single-family streetscape of Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke (as writer Jack Landau recently detailed in a post for BlogTO).

In 1945, the federal government created the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) specifically to help Canadians better afford housing – initially its low-income housing programs split costs of subsidized housing 75 per cent federal and 25 per cent provincial – and through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, that agency was a driving force in helping construct apartment and co-op housing in Toronto and across the country.

Aside from that, the federal government controls immigration, which affects demand for housing. And I was told this week by housing economist Shaun Hildebrand of Urbanation that one of the biggest things that could happen to spur massive development of rental housing units is for the federal government to waive or defer the HST on those units.

Here’s a quote from the CMHC website: “CMHC exists for a single reason: to make housing affordable for everyone in Canada.” Does that federal agency seem to be describing an issue that is not a federal responsibility? Well here’s another quote: “Federal, provincial and territorial governments are primary partners in housing and have a shared responsibility and complementary roles for housing.”

So: housing is an area of federal responsibility. And it is an area where the federal government controls both access to cash and meaningful policy tools to deal with the affordability crisis we now face.

A crisis, by the way, that the National Bank said last week might devolve into “housing affordability Armageddon” because of recent federal policy choices.

Now, are Freeland and Trudeau and their team right that the federal government has contributed somewhat already? Sure. Do they have a valid point that Premier Doug Ford needs to be doing more to help cities on this and other files, particularly given his own loud puffery about how housing is his top and only priority? Absolutely.

But has Trudeau’s government done enough? Not nearly, given that the crisis goes on and on, in Toronto and across the country.

And is it remotely acceptable to try to pretend that somehow it isn’t even their department? No. Historically, federal policy is among the most consequential elements of housing affordability and supply in Canada.

It is their job. They are just trying to find an excuse to explain why they haven’t been doing it well enough.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *