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Election 2006: The Urban Agenda

It has taken me a week to get around to commenting on Stephen Harper's policies on the urban file. It's an important issue because it was one of the things that concerned me about Harper in 2004. In many ways he signaled back then that he wasn't terribly interested in the concerns of municipalities. At a Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting in June of 2004, Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was refering to the Conservatives when he said "That's the barbarians at the gate."

At the time, Paul Martin had promised, but not yet implemented, the gas tax transfer to Canadian municipalities. Layton was promising the same thing, plus a bit more, and a lot faster. Harper wanted to give the provinces tax room and leave it to them to support cities. (Looking through my archives for this stuff lead me to a remarkable example of the Toronto Star's Liberal bias: Which Party Offers the Best Deal for Cities? (May 31, 2004).)

This time around, things are a bit different. However, urban thinkers like Matthew Blackett are still concerned about how Harper might handle these issues: "While some urbanites are afraid of the Tory social agenda, Iím much more scared about how they would deal with city issues that the last Parliament treated as an important issue. Conservatives are not federalists, and are quite adamant that the provinces are the ones to deal with cities."

As far as I can tell from reading the Conservative platform, their policies on issues of immediate concern to cities are okay. They promise to:

  • Maintain the New Deal for Cities and Communities, including rolling it out to 5-cents-per-litre over the same timeline as Paul Martin.
  • Allow larger communities to spend this money on roads. (Currently only communities under 500,000 can do so, while larger cities are limited to "green" projects.) I don't prefer this change, but I don't expect it to affect cities like Toronto that want to spend on transit.
  • Maintain all other infrastructure programs that the federal government has entered into with the provinces and municipalities.
  • Introduce a tax deduction for rapid transit. For years we were trying to get the Liberals to listen on this issue, but the GTA caucus just couldn't get Martin's attention, despite (or perhaps because of) having a lock on every seat in the region.
  • Implement a tax-credits-based affordable housing strategy. I haven't been able to figure out what the Liberal policy is to make a good comparison, but here's a Liberal Party press release that attacks Harper on this issue. It probably has some truth to it, but is obviously written from a partisan position.

Obviously there are more issues than that that affect cities. Every issue and promise in this campaign will have an effect on urban living, and the Conservative Platform offers a mix of positives and negatives. However, on the set of issues that have been tied in with the "New Deal for Cities", Harper's position of maintaining Martin commitments would seem to render him, well, not so scary to me.

On the other hand, if I were to give credit to one party on the basis of what they have managed to accomplish for my city under the "New Deal" banner, it would have to be the NDP. Jack Layton has accomplished more in 18 months for Toronto than the other 22 (and previously 23) MPs have in 12 years.

As well, I should add that Harper is right that these issues are mainly a provincial matter. Torontonians mainly turned to Ottawa for help when suffering at the hands of a hostile provincial government. But so long as we have a government in Queen's Park that actually cares, I expect things to continue to improve. (Not that I'm entirely satisfied with McGuinty, but that's a story for another time.)

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