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Sean Speer: Centre Block’s massive price tag shows Canadian life is mired in red tape

Commentary

If one was in search of the perfect symbol of our collective inability to build anything in modern Canada, they wouldn’t need to look any further. Recent news that the restoration of Parliament’s Centre Block will now cost as much as $5 billion and take until 2030 to complete is nearly a bit too on the nose.

The project’s massive costs and lengthy construction timelines reflect the institutional and policy sclerosis that’s beset public and private projects across the country. That it involves the building that’s home to our federal elected officials is a powerful metaphor for the broader problems with building in Canada.

Policymakers have so enveloped the country in a labyrinth of rules, regulations, and red tape that they themselves can no longer escape the consequences. If it wasn’t such a massive taxpayer expense, it would almost be fitting punishment for their poor choices.

The evidence is quite overwhelming: Canada ranks 34th of 35 OECD countries for the length of time to obtain general construction permits. It takes, on average, 250 days to get a permit in Canada, which is three times (168 days) longer than in the United States. We now find ourselves in the odd company of the Slovak Republic and other former communist states when it comes to the efficiency and expectedness of our regulatory processes. This isn’t generally a good sign.

It has direct consequences in the form of high costs and project delays. The Centre Block project is notable because of its extraordinary costs but it’s hardly an outlier. Building projects in Canada are regularly among the slowest and most costly around the world. As The Hub’s contributor Chris Spoke pointed out in late April, for instance, Canadian costs on transit infrastructure (typically measured as cost per kilometre) can be as much as four or five times as high as in better-performing jurisdictions.

These costs aren’t merely borne by investors and taxpayers either. They spill into the broader economy and ultimately affect individuals and households.

Our slow and costly construction processes reflect a comfort with modern society’s stagnation.

Take housing for instance. A late 2020 report by C.D. Howe Institute scholar Ben Dachis estimated that the supply-constraining results of a combination of government regulations, taxes, and fees add an average of $230,000 to home prices across the country’s eight most heavily-regulated cities. Vancouver’s housing regulation costs, by the way, are by far the largest in Canada, resulting in an extra cost of $644,000 for the average new house.

But our inability to build doesn’t just contribute to direct financial costs. It also has indirect effects on our culture and society. It’s contributed to a deeper malaise — a “crisis of confidence” as Conservative MP Michael Chong recently characterized it in an interview with The Hub.

Our slow and costly construction processes reflect a comfort with modern society’s stagnation and sclerosis. It’s as if we’ve resigned ourselves to the idea that high costs and project delays are just the natural order of things. The result is a self-reinforcing cycle whereby our collective complacency breeds further costs and delays and they in turn lead to greater resignation and even less urgency. In this sense, the Centre Block project represents both a cause and effect of what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes as an “age of decadence.”

If the problem is inertia, how do we get out of it? How do we restore the idea that different and better is possible? How do we start building again?

Public policy is a big part of the puzzle. We need to deconstruct and rebuild regulatory processes for housing, transit, child-care spaces, long-term care homes, energy infrastructure, industrial construction, and various other parts of Canadian life currently mired by red tape, endless consultations and multiple project approvals.

Such a regulatory reform agenda cannot just be another “weed-whacking” exercise to eliminate superfluous or outdated regulations. It must be more ambitious. The goal should be to reconceptualize our regulatory systems with the intent of tilting them more in the direction of building.

But as important as public policy is, there’s the deeper and more complicated issue of will and desire. The political system will only respond if the Canadian public demands it — if voters no longer accept that it should take more than five years to install an elevator in a Toronto subway station or cost $8 million to construct and manage an outdoor hockey rink on Parliament Hill or require another $30 billion to replace our aging naval ships. Canadians, in short, need to want to rebuild a national commitment to building.

One wonders if the pandemic experience may contribute to such a renewed vision. A combination of rising housing prices, the lack of vaccine production capacity, government procurement delays, a deep economic recession, and growing concerns about our reliance on China for critical goods may ultimately be a catalyst for greater urgency and a sense of purpose. Perhaps it will be enough to jolt us from the complacency and resignation that’s been holding us back and bring an end to Douthatian decadence.

If so, the restored Centre Block building (whenever it’s eventually completed) may stand as a physical reminder of a key turning point in modern history: when Canadian society overcame its crisis of confidence and started building again.

Joanna Baron: Without a Governor General, Canada lacks institutional independence

Commentary

In January, the Confederacy of Treaty Six sent an urgent letter to Her Majesty, the Queen regarding the situation on the vacant position that resulted from the abrupt resignation of the former Governor General.

“We wanted to remind our treaty partner — the Crown — of our concern that at this time in the state of Canada having no representative of herself,” said Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker. “The chief justice of Canada can sit in for a short period, but a concern arises when legislation is enacted that might affect us — what happens if the legislation ends up before the Judge? It would be better to have a Governor General in place as soon as possible.”

(The Queen’s reply was tepid: “Thanks for the enquiry,” her communications secretary replied, “but this is a matter for the Canadian government.”)

Five months later, the Confederacy’s points still stand. When former Governor General Julie Payette stepped down following the Auditor General’s report of a toxic workplace in January 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at pains to assure the country that her replacement would be shortly forthcoming.

Ms. Payette’s successor has yet to be named; instead, following the Letters Patent decree of King George VI, Chief Justice Richard Wagner is now the Queen’s representative, the administrator of the government of Canada in addition to his Supreme Court duties.

That means he’s granting royal assent to new laws and orders-in-council, while also adjudicating their constitutionality. Wagner also will effectively bear the role of both advising himself — as head of the Advisory Council of the Order of Canada — and deciding who receives the Order of Canada as acting Governor General.

Admittedly these are mostly ceremonial functions. However, the possibility of a snap election — not uncommon under a minority Parliament— makes things more awkward. The chief justice would have to follow the prime minister’s request to dissolve Parliament.

Worse, were the election to result in a hung Parliament, Wagner would be in the unseemly role of having to choose between competing coalitions, and ultimately select a new prime minister. Effectively, the ultimate authority of our country’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches currently rest in Wagner’s hands. The same guy who determines whether a law is constitutional is granting that law Royal Assent.

Never before in Canadian history has the fact of a chief justice also acting as Governor General been so awkward

His docket at the Supreme Court includes First Nations litigation which touches upon the honour of the Crown in upholding its treaty obligations, a sore spot mentioned by the Confederacy in their letter.

Never before in Canadian history has the fact of a chief justice also acting as Governor General been so awkward, as Supreme Court justices are currently at their zenith of power and prestige over our country’s moeurs and moral self-regard. As Y.Y. Zhu recently observed, “Other countries have public intellectuals; Canada has Supreme Court judges.”

The common remedy to any matter of public controversy in this country has become to throw a retired Supreme Court judge to the task, with mixed results. No less than four were involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair, in a Battle Royale of the judges. More recently, an investigation by Thomas Cromwell apparently failed to cool the embers of a University of Toronto hiring scandal involving a human rights scholar who criticized Israel’s West Bank settlements.

The impulse to consult former Supremes as oracles is obvious: the imprimatur of the Court suggests it is elevated above the fracas of politics, and rooted in a quasi-mystical knowledge of the deep norms of rights and freedoms in our country.

It wasn’t always so: in the years up to 1949, when the right of provincial appeals to the Privy Council in London was abolished, it was difficult to convince qualified jurists to even take a job on the Supreme Court, much less live in Ottawa. Both Montreal and Toronto had their own, better-regarded appellate courts (and, presumably, superior quality of life).

This began to change with Bora Laskin’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1970 — Laskin famously shepherded the pro-civil liberties Laskin, Spence, and Dickson “LSD connection” in dissent to conservative majorities. The power and prestige of the Court, of course, crested with the adoption of the Charter in 1982, which granted the sequestered justices increasingly full purview over all areas of Canadian law and administrative regulation as well as our most divisive public policy issues such as safe-injection sites, physician-assisted death, and sex work.

The media has mostly been silent about the risks posed by the Governor General vacuum to our institutional independence and legitimacy. This is perhaps unsurprising given the more pressing demands about COVID-19 vaccine supply and military scandals. Or perhaps they simply have failed to grasp the risk to institutional independence and legitimacy occasioned by Wagner’s tenure.

There certainly was no dearth of questions and innuendo in 2014 during l’affaire Nadon, where then-Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin (currently a favourite for appointment to GG) was reported to have warned the justice minister and Stephen Harper’s chief of staff against nominating Justice Marc Nadon, a federal court judge, to fill a Quebec spot on the court.

Was McLachlin improperly interfering with a discretionary decision of the executive? Was she precluding her ability to appear impartial when a constitutional challenge against Nadon’s appointment was promptly launched, concluding that he was indeed ineligible, despite the assiduous legal analysis of yet another retired Supreme, Ian Binnie?

The recently retired media darling of the court Rosalie Abella noted that “a Supreme Court must be independent because it is the final adjudicator of which contested values in a society should triumph.” Wise words which ought to be heeded. As it happens, her name is being floated widely as Payette’s successor.