While political pressure has forced the Martin government to transform its "New Deal for Cities" into a "New Deal for Communities", Stephen Harper's plan to address urban concerns could better be described as a "New Deal for Provinces and Rural Communities".
I discovered Harper's 2004 "Better Deal" document -- which is apparently in response to the major cities' agenda -- through a link in an interesting posting by Ian Welsh on the Tilting at Windmills blog. I have mixed feelings about it.
Harper understands some of the problems facing major cities, but also misses the boat on some other aspects.
Harper's argument would seem to be that the federal role in this problem is that it is spending excessively on inappropriate projects, thereby putting the squeeze on the provinces. The provincial governments supposedly "have less ability to collect taxes", and therefore struggle unfairly. Harper acknowledges that provinces have passed the buck (or rather lack of bucks) on to municipalities, but he seems agnostic as to whether this is right or wrong.
He goes on to raise doubt about the depth of the problem in urban areas when he blames them for "increas[ing] their own program and policy mandates, creating growing spending pressures on municipal budgets". I suppose it must be those damn Toronto "socialists" I read about in the National Post. Apparently they have seized power through a "democratic deficit" of low and dropping municipal turnout.
This attitude is troubling, but may or may not be important at the policy level. I do agree with Harper when he describes a federal government syndrome of joyful ribbon-cutting by MPs that all happens while municipalities go underfunded. I also agree that this is more of a provincial issue. However, when I view his four-part plan my concerns grow slightly...
In this context I'm ambivalent to his Fiscal Imbalance talk, although I am not generally sympathetic to provincial complaints. Transfering gas tax points directly to the provinces is probably a good idea. I support the idea of a Prime Minister who would say, "Municipalities are a provincial concern. I am giving provinces more money, and if they don't pass it on to your city, take it up with them." (Although what I'd really like to see is constitutional recognition of municipalities and the right to use a broad range of tax powers.)
Rural Canada? Well, that's nice, but that doesn't answer the question. Stephen Harper was asked what he would do about a New Deal for Cities. This is changing the subject.
The Liberals are certainly weak on Urban Crime. The gun registry might have been a nice idea, but it doesn't appear to be working well enough to cut down on the availability of guns here in Toronto. Better things could be done on gun control, but I don't see signs that Harper would do them either.
And these criticisms of the so-called "rights of criminals" seems like pandering to (Toronto/Calgary) Sun readers to me. We have due process for a reason, people.
I agree that Homelessness might be better addressed through income supplements than actually building properties. On the other hand, I don't think I trust Stephen Harper to supplement income enough to reflect the cost of living in a city like Toronto or Vancouver. This is prejudice on my part, but I am already imagining suggestions to make due with dented cans of tuna.
Overall, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the document and believe that there's a chance Harper, in practice, could produce results equivalent to, or even better than, Martin. On the other hand I'm put off by what I perceive to be a thinly-veiled distaste for the idea that there even should be an urban agenda.
UPDATE: Ian Welsh replies here.