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Mitch Heimpel: The Liberals are planning to lose a housing election
Right now the federal government is set up to continually fail unless it starts imposing some organization on a policy file it clearly has trouble grasping.
By: Mitch Heimpel
Whenever you talk about cabinet shuffles — as everyone in Ottawa seems to be doing these days — it feels like you have to start by listing the caveats.
So, let's do that.
Ministers are only as effective as the first minister's office — be they a prime minister or premier — will allow them to be.
No matter how qualified or effective a minister is, if their file just isn't a government priority, there's only so much they can do. Because we have so watered down ministerial accountability, it's harder than ever to evaluate good and bad ministers. So, what does it matter if someone different occupies the corner office? Nobody outside of Ottawa notices this stuff anyway.
The reality of government is that prime ministers and premiers are acutely aware of who their best performers are. You hear about ministers all the time who are “victims of their own success,” for making themselves too difficult to replace in a given portfolio. Other ministers are referred to as “firefighters” for their ability to go into a given portfolio and deal with an assortment of policy and communications problems left behind by the old minister.
As with any large organization, where you put your best people is an indication of your organization's priorities.
Which brings us to the housing crisis, and why we need a federal minister responsible for housing that has more responsibility than reading CMHC reports, and showing up for the occasional cheque ceremony.
The Line editors did an excellent job over the weekend highlighting the surprisingly candid comments of the Bank of Canada regarding Canada's immigration policies and their impact on the housing market. It needs to be stressed, at length, what an incredible exception Canada is to the entirety of human history in terms of our ability to successfully integrate people of various cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds without it resulting in some kind of longstanding ethnic strife or conflict. Canada, almost alone among the nations of Western Europe and North America, has been able to accept large levels of immigration, while maintaining broad popular and multi-partisan support for it continuing.
The issue that most threatens that support for immigration levels is what's been called "excessive service demands” in polling. Basically, Canadians are incredibly supportive of more immigration, while also being very worried about the strain that those levels of immigration could put on social services, health care and especially housing. Stories about the housing market in Toronto and Vancouver have been fixtures in our politics for a decade — and went largely ignored by governments. But now, we're dealing with a housing crunch in markets like Halifax, Quebec and Calgary.
What could once be (wrongly) ignored by the federal government as a predominantly provincial or municipal issue, is now very clearly a national issue that has to consider national policy inputs like immigration, while also having few corresponding policy levers to pull. Having one minister with a titular responsibility for "housing" but another minister responsible for immigration, another minister responsible for intergovernmental affairs and still another minister responsible for infrastructure is a perfect plan if we assume the federal government wants to achieve absolutely nothing on the housing crisis.
For the foreseeable future, housing is the government's largest intergovernmental affairs issue. Yes, the provinces will continue to ask for more money for other things — including health care. But even the Premiers see infrastructure as the biggest emerging need on their horizon.
You need one minister. One minister responsible for housing, infrastructure and intergovernmental affairs. One person whose job it is to deal with the provinces and municipalities on their infrastructure and housing needs. One person whose job it is to coordinate the government's overall policy response. One political face that is accountable when federal housing programs spend a lot of money to achieve even the most modest of housing targets. If the government is serious about its immigration policy, it has to be serious about its housing policy, and right now the federal government is set up to continually fail unless it starts imposing some organization on a policy file it clearly has trouble grasping. Put another way, this would be a good time to show that “deliverology” is something more than money making for management consultants or The Line’s favourite punchline.
The cold hard truth of this, is that it would also benefit the federal Liberals to look like they're taking the crisis seriously — or that they've even noticed one is occurring at all. Housing now regularly polls as a top concern for Canadians, and Canadians tend to think the Liberals both aren't paying enough attention to it, and that it would be a greater focus for Pierre Poilievre.
The government needs to start building the case that it's taking the housing crisis seriously. One new mega-ministry is by no means a cure-all for that. But it would at least be a demonstration that they understand their own problems on the file. And, for the Trudeau Liberals, that would be a start.
Mitch Heimpel has served Conservative cabinet ministers and party leaders at the provincial and federal levels, and is currently the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada.
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