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Chris Spoke: Doug Ford’s path to victory this election? Housing

Commentary

The Ontario provincial election campaign is starting to ramp up. With just seven months to E-Day, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives (PCPO) have established a regular cadence of press conferences, policy announcements and campaign ads.

And with these press conferences, announcements, and ads a theme is beginning to emerge.

What do you think about when you think about Doug Ford and the PCPO? (Let’s set COVID-19 aside for this exercise.)

It might be the use of ministerial zoning orders to fast track housing development, which has drawn equal amounts of praise and criticism. It might be the proposal for a new highway in the Greater Toronto Area, Highway 413, which has also drawn equal amounts of praise and criticism.

Maybe it’s recent pronouncements by the premier that Ontario is looking to attract new immigrants who are ready to work and not those who aren’t. Again, equal parts praise and criticism.

More recently, you might think about new legislation that has been introduced by the ministry of labour to remove work certification barriers for immigrants and to ban or limit the use of non-compete agreements by employers.

As far as I can tell, this all points to a clear and compelling campaign theme:

“It’s time to build.”

In fact, this theme is made explicit in the party’s latest ad: “We are the only party looking to the future, and we’re ready to build.”

Liberal Party leader Steven Del Duca, for his part, has been reinforcing this theme, and falling on the other side of it, with his proposals for a four day workweek and a basic income pilot.

“It’s time to chill.”

If the recent federal election is any indication, this next provincial election will be mostly about one thing: housing.

Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole both made housing a priority in their campaigns, no doubt informed by survey data pointing to housing affordability as a top five priority across the country and the top priority in the GTA.

When going into a housing election, it’s probably a good idea to be positioned as the party that’s ready to build.

I’ve written before about how housing is expensive because there’s not enough of it, how there’s not enough of it because municipal land use rules stand in the way, and how municipal land use rules are enforced and defended by municipal councillors catering to their nimby-constituents.

Doug Ford should read that three-part sentence and think, “This is how I win.

Here’s the thing: housing is most expensive in our large urban centres, and the decreasing affordability of surrounding regions is a direct consequence of not building much more housing in those large urban centres.

People work downtown but they live where they can afford to. They “drive till they qualify” and these days, that means farther and farther away.

Ontario’s three largest population centres are Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton.

In 2018, the PCPO didn’t win any ridings in Toronto outside of Etobicoke and south of Eglinton, any ridings in Hamilton at all, and just two of six ridings in Ottawa.

It may sound counterintuitive, but this could be a big opportunity for Doug Ford. While those cities’ municipal councillors might need to cater to their NIMBY constituents, along with the LPO and provincial NDP, the PCPO emphatically does not.

The PCPO has not yet revealed what the next phase of its Housing Supply Action Plan will look like, but it should, and soon. It should also be aggressive about it.

Housing is a great issue for conservatives for a few reasons.

First, as mentioned above, conservatives are uniquely able to position themselves in opposition to the architects of our housing crisis — namely, those urban progressive voters and municipal councillors who have prioritized neighbourhood character protection over new housing supply.

Second, housing affordability gets improved through deregulation (or land use liberalization), and conservatives love deregulation. It’s been their thing for the last 40 years, at least. 

Third, conservative parties need to expand their base, and that means becoming more appealing to young urban professionals.

Housing affordability is an Uber-like issue. It benefits young urban professionals most of all, and requires a common-sense solution (bust the cartel!) that is broadly agreed upon on non-partisan terms.

Finally, improving housing affordability — that is, allowing for much more housing in large urban centres — would be a boon to productivity, innovation, and economic growth. Three more things that Conservatives love.

It might just be the perfect issue at the perfect time. Making the most of it, however, will require bold and direct policy action paired with clear and concise communication, and that’s not always been forthcoming from Doug Ford and the PCPO.

For the sake of everyone who would benefit from improved housing affordability (which is basically everyone), we should hope that they get this right.

It’s time to build. 

Joanna Baron: The Supreme Court rules there’s still no right not to be offended

Commentary

Are distasteful jokes “punching down” at a disabled child a violation of constitutional or human rights laws? In the case of Mike Ward, today a slim majority of the Supreme Court of Canada has answered no, and held a line, for now, against the right not to be offended.

The Montreal comedian Ward’s “Les Intouchables” routine roasted Quebec’s ‘sacred cows’: the province’s universally beloved celebrities, such as Céline Dion and 10-year old Jérémy Gabriel, a well-known child singer with Treacher Collins syndrome.

The comments are difficult to hear, much less defend: Ward mocked Gabriel’s hearing device as a “subwoofer on his head” and called him the “ugly singing kid.” Gabriel gave evidence that the jokes caused him to be mocked at his school and even drove him to suicidal thoughts.

In 2016, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ordered Ward to pay $37,000 in damages for violating Gabriel’s right to dignity, finding that this right, which is protected by the Quebec Charter, outweighed Ward’s right to free expression. It arrived easily at this conclusion by asserting that the values underpinning the right to free expression, namely the search for the truth, participation to the democratic process and personal development, were not furthered by Ward’s repugnant comments, and thus his jokes carried minimal value.

In today’s decision, the Supreme Court split 5-4 over what a “reasonable person in the circumstances” would understand to be the impact of Ward’s jokes. In particular, the Court assessed whether Ward’s remarks went further than mocking Gabriel personally and instead degraded disabled people as a group, presenting a risk of inflaming discriminatory sentiments against disabled people in society.

Given the context of the barbs against Gabriel, was he being singled out because of his disability or rather, in a way, being allotted equal treatment based on his celebrity status (as Ward’s lawyer, renowned human rights litigator Julius Grey, argued)? The majority found that since Ward chose to target Gabriel because he was a public figure and not because he was disabled, the jokes did not amount to discrimination.

It’s important to recall that public anti-discrimination laws have the unique goal of preventing the perpetuation of prejudice or stereotyping based on immutable characteristics for society as a whole. It does not adjudicate private disputes between individuals. The question is whether the state failing to sanction the speech or conduct in question might risk creating a social atmosphere of hostility against a protected group.

Conversely, the Court suggested that if Gabriel had sought damages in the form of a private law claim—for example, in defamation, which protects the right to reputation, or the newly-created tort of online harassment—he might have been successful against Ward.

Justices Abella and Kasirer, writing on behalf of themselves and two other judges, dissented and would have maintained the fine against Ward. They would shift the burden to Ward to answer as to why the jokes should not be construed as discrimination. This represents a significant departure from Whatcott, a 2013 Supreme Court case which held that speech, however repugnant and offensive, is generally protected unless it meets the threshold of hate speech.

It is hard not to consider today’s decision in light of the recent outrage concerning Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special, The Closer. In The Closer, Chappelle expresses disgust at being “tricked” into calling a trans woman beautiful and compares trans women to white people wearing blackface.

At first, Netflix’s corporate bosses defended artistic freedom in principle. “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” Ted Sarandos wrote in a company-wide email. But after a few dozen Netflix employees staged a walkout, alleging Chappelle’s comments risked inciting further violence against trans people, Sarandos seemed to fold, saying he had “screwed up” in not acknowledging the harm towards the trans community. One is left to wonder what the impact of l’affaire Chappelle will be on comedians less successful—that is to say, nearly all—than Chappelle.

The Ward decision was one judge away from rendering the spectre of government fines for offensive jokes a constitutional requirement, an outcome that would be the death knell of comedy. If comedians must imagine their jokes later transcribed into courtroom evidence and dissected by judges, they will inevitably stay away from the edgy, the subversive, and the dark—in other words, what makes comedy so satisfying and important in a free society.

Comedy relies on crossing boundaries and exposing truisms: employing the state in the messy exercise of determining when an invisible line has been crossed undoubtedly would lead to a chilling effect and a world of milquetoast humour.