News

For Tories, Cities Aren't Sexy

Harcourt report too hot to handle, maybe for Grits, too.

By Tom Barrett 25 Jan 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

image atom
Mike Harcourt: Devolve power

Back around the dawn of the new millennium, cities became a hot topic in federal politics.

The federal Liberals, under Jean Chrétien and then Paul Martin, brought forth a task force on urban issues, a new urban agenda and a new deal for cities.

Cities were sexy.

Then Stephen Harper's Conservatives formed a minority government without winning a single seat in any of Canada's three largest cities.

Suddenly, cities were not so sexy.

Harper didn't talk about urban agendas. The Conservatives were focused on their five priorities, only one of which -- getting tough on crime -- could be said to have anything to do with cities.

But some of the Liberal initiatives continued to putter along, sort of like a windup toy that keeps on going long after its owner has gone off to do other things.

Harcourt's ambitious report

There was, for example, the External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities, chaired by former B.C. premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt.

Created by Martin in February 2004 as part of that new deal for cities, the committee was supposed to develop "a long-term vision on the role that cities should play in sustaining Canada's quality of life by looking at such issues as the environment, competitiveness and social cohesion."

As if that wasn't enough, the committee was also asked to "enrich the discussion of policy options by bringing regional and issue-specific expertise to the table."

The committee went out, talked to people from across the country, commissioned research and generally did a lot of vision developing and discussion enriching.

Then, five months after Harper's Conservatives took over from Martin's Liberals, the committee handed in its final report.

The report, From Restless Communities to Resilient Places: Building a Stronger Future for All Canadians, didn't get the big splash the Liberals had planned for it. It was quietly posted on the government's website, was mentioned in one or two media reports, and that was it.

It's been read by a small circle of policy wonks, many of whom think it deserves greater exposure.

"I think there are some things in there that probably should have been at least considered and debated," says Loleen Berdahl, senior researcher at the Canada West Foundation. "I certainly have never heard debate about it at all."

Power shift to local advised

The report looks at a lot of issues, including immigration, transit, urban sprawl, sustainability, aboriginal communities and urban aboriginals. Although many of its recommendations have to do with big cities -- 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas -- it also looks at smaller communities and at urban-rural links.

And it makes some politically difficult recommendations that might not be too welcome even to a government that likes to talk about urban agendas.

The report warns that Canada faces "an acute imbalance in resources and decision-making power" that hampers municipalities' ability to deal with the increasing pressures put upon them.

It calls for "a profound transformation in the federal government's role" from a controlling force to an "enabling, deft and integrated" presence.

It's certainly not the first time Ottawa's been asked to pass powers -- and the resources to deal with them -- down to the local level. But the problem is urgent: although municipalities provide some of the most fundamental government services, from road repair to garbage hauling, "the municipal level of government is also the level with the least degree of autonomy, both in the authority to make decisions and the resources to act on them."

More than 90 per cent of municipal revenues come from property taxes, which, the report says, "do not increase automatically as the economy grows, as is the case of income and sales taxes."

Massive infrastructure deficit

The result is "a growing infrastructure deficit" -- cities have been putting off needed improvements to water, sewage, roads and bridges. The report cites a Statistics Canada study that concluded that three-quarters of all "components of infrastructure" in the country were more than halfway through their expected lifespan. The average wastewater treatment facility has seen almost two-thirds of its life cycle.

Between $40 billion and $125 billion is needed to close this deficit, the report says.

Federal revenue-sharing deals that give municipalities GST relief and some gas tax revenues are a start, the report says, but what is needed is a "double devolution" of responsibilities -- and financial resources -- from the federal government to the provinces and then from the provinces to municipalities.

"We have spoken to leaders from many communities, of all sizes, from all parts of the country, and on one point there is complete unanimity: increased local responsibility without increased local resources is a recipe for disaster," the report says. "Communities must have the means as well as the authority to set their own priorities."

The report makes a number of other recommendations on the need for co-ordinated policies that emphasize sustainability, another buzzword that, until recently, was not heard much from the Conservatives.

Without an urban agenda, however, the report has turned into what Simon Fraser University political scientist Kennedy Stewart calls a "shelf-bender."

'Sank into oblivion'

Stewart says he admires the report's ideas, but doesn't think they have much chance of being implemented by a Harper government.

Cities are "about issue number 95 on the Conservative agenda since very few of their ridings are essentially urban," he said.

The idea of devolving powers and revenues to municipal governments comes up every decade, but doesn't go anywhere, Stewart said.

"The problem is, when the federal government devolves any powers to the municipalities, the provincial government just takes it back on the other end. So the federal government gives the municipality $1 million and then the provincial government decides to not transfer that much to the same municipality.

"In a way, the federal government is just giving extra money to the province."

Peter Oberlander, emeritus professor of regional planning at the University of B.C., said the report's strength is its emphasis on a cohesive, consistent approach to urban issues.

Oberlander, who served as federal deputy minister for urban affairs in the Trudeau era, has seen plenty of urban initiatives over the years.

"There's a difference between bits and pieces and a policy which makes sure that all these initiatives support each other," he said. "I would argue that what we need is something where the components as a coherent whole are more than the sum of the parts."

Still, Oberlander said, the report "kind of sank into oblivion because the government had changed."

Harcourt holds out hope

A spokesman for Infrastructure Canada, the federal department responsible for the report, said it has "served to inform consultations" on infrastructure funding, but said nothing about the report's broader recommendations.

Harcourt, however, is optimistic that the recommendations may someday turn into policy.

"They're looking at it," he said.

He said he doesn't think the change in government has necessarily doomed the report.

After all, Harcourt argued, the idea of decentralized decision-making fits with Harper's political philosophy.

The report, he said, contains "strong arguments that would appeal to a Tory soul."

There's the appeal to get decision-making out of Ottawa.

There's the argument that if communities and cities aren't sustainable, they aren't going to be competitive internationally.

And there's the report's discussion of the interdependence between Canada's cities and its small and rural communities. Despite the increasing population shift to cities and the pressure on urban areas, the report isn't just about big cities. It talks about all sizes of communities and what it calls "the importance of place."

"We'll see how it's taken up," Harcourt said. "I'm going to continue to push the recommendations."

Where are Liberals?

Loleen Berdahl, the researcher from the Canada West Foundation, said she's happy to hear that, but she still thinks that taking action on the report -- specially the "double devolution" recommendation -- is going to be a huge political job.

"The Harper government's had such trouble dealing with the provinces just to sort out the quote-unquote fiscal imbalance that if you were to try to address another fiscal imbalance and tie it to money to the municipalities, politically it could just be such a struggle," she said.

"I don't blame anyone for not picking up that ball and running with it. The work involved would be tremendous."

Nor do the federal Liberals appear to have rediscovered their love of cities. Berdahl noted that she hasn't seen any comment from the official Opposition on the Harcourt report.

"If urban issues were still a key issue to them, wouldn't someone have raised it?"

Related Tyee stories:

 [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Have any major issues been missed in the Alberta election campaign?

Take this week's poll