The Liberal caucus is once again thundering and shaking its collective fist at the Conservative government, as opposition parties are wont to do in our Parliamentary system of government. The release of the Liberal urban report, with a section on housing, earlier today raises two questions: What’s the difference between the Liberal outrage of 1990 and their outrage in 2008, and; what about the Conservatives – are the Harper Conservatives as bad for housing as the Mulroney Conservatives 18 years ago?
First, the Liberals…
Earlier today, the Liberal Urban Communities Caucus released a powerful report condemning the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, and calling for strong action.
Eighteen years ago, almost to the day, the National Liberal Caucus Task Force on Housing released a powerful report that condemned the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, and called for strong action.
Liberal Urban Communities Caucus (May 28, 2008): “Prime Minister Stephen Harper has told Canadian municipal leaders in the clearest terms not to expect any help for any of their problems from the federal government. With a shrug of his shoulders, the Prime Minister has abandoned Canadian cities. We believe this lack of leadership from the current federal government will cause serious harm to the Canadian economy and the lives of all Canadians.”
National Liberal Caucus Task Force on Housing (May 14, 1990): “The federal government has abandoned its responsibilities with regard to housing problems. The housing crisis is growing at an alarming rate and the government sits there and does nothing; it refuses to apply the urgent measures that are required to reverse this deteriorating situation… The federal government’s role would be that of a partner working with other levels of government, and private and public housing groups. But leadership must come from one source; and a national vision requires some national direction.”
While the two reports strike similar tones even though they are eighteen years apart, the specific recommendations are somewhat different.
The Liberals in opposition in 1990 were a bit more bold in recommending new investments (for instance, in 1990, the Liberals called for the funding of 5,000 new co-op homes annually even as the Conservative government was shutting down the national affordable housing program).
The Liberals in opposition in 2008 don’t make a strong pitch for new investment. Instead, they call for lots more consultation (such as annual meetings between the federal cabinet and municipal leaders) and “steady-as-she-goes” spending (such as “maintain funding for housing” even as the Liberals condemn the Conservatives for not making adequate investments).
Why the dampening down of recommendations, even as the passion remains strong? The Liberals in government from 1993 to 2006 had a great deal of difficulty in meeting the promises that they set out in their 1990 task force report. They failed to restore the slashed investments in affordable housing for which they condemned the Conservative government and they failed to make the new investments (such as the promised 5,000 new co-op homes annually).
In the 1996 federal budget, delivered by then-Finance Minister Paul Martin, the Liberal government announced plans to download most of the federal housing programs to the provinces and territories, which left Canada as the only major country in the world without a national housing strategy. In 1998, the Liberal government “commercialized” Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation – the federal government’s national housing agency – with radical changes to the National Housing Act.
After the mayors of Canada’s biggest cities declared homelessness a “national disaster” in 1998, the Liberals announced a series of bits and pieces – some money for homelessness here, some money for housing rehabilitation there.
Finally, in 2001, the feds signed the Affordable Housing Framework Agreement with the provinces and territories. Under this deal, as it evolved, the federal Liberal government agreed to put $1 billion over five years into new affordable homes and the provinces and territories were supposed to match that funding for a total of $2 billion nation-wide. Not enough, but a very good start.
Unfortunately, the 2001 agreement was so clumsy that in large parts of the country (including Ontario and much of Atlantic Canada and parts of the west) very little new housing was built.
The Wellesley Institute’s National Housing Report Card of 2008 charts the dollars that did, and all too often, didn’t flow under that agreement.
Now, comparing the Conservatives of 1990 with those of today…
The Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, elected in 1984, slashed national affordable housing spending – cutting almost $2 billion in housing dollars during its ten years in office. In 1993, the Conservative government (then under Prime Minister Kim Campbell) delivered the final blow by cancelling all new funding for affordable housing. To be blunt, they pretty much stripped the cupboard bare, leaving only funding for projects that had already been built.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, elected in 2006, announced that it would allocate $1.4 billion in affordable housing dollars authorized by Parliament in 2005 (a good move by the government, but a bit of a surprise since the Conservatives, in opposition at the time, had voted in 2005 against the housing spending). Late in 2006, the Conservatives announced that they would extend (but not expand) federal homelessness and housing repair programs for two years.
All three pots of money are due to expire this year, so if the Conservatives don’t renew, extend and enhance the three programs, then hundreds of street-level services for homeless people in 61 communities across Canada will skid to a halt, much-needed transitional and affordable housing won’t get built and rundown housing won’t be restored.
National and local housing groups, municipalities, Aboriginal groups, business organizations, provinces and territories, faith communities and many others have all been calling for housing action.
For Parliamentary observers, these are interesting times. The New Democratic Party and the Parti Quebecois have been long-time and consistent advocates for increased investment and a new national housing strategy. Now, the Liberal Party has added its voice. Three of the four political parties in the Commons – a strong majority – are calling for housing action.
All eyes are on the government of Stephen Harper.