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Peter Menzies: Meta called the government’s bluff and the Liberals are left grasping at air

Commentary

There is only one option left for rational people trying to make sense of Canada’s internet policies and the politicians who defend them.

That is to take disbelief and suspend it—ideally where it won’t interfere with the fictions swirling around the Online News Act like late summer wasps at a picnic table.

The act known as Bill C-18 is based on the assumed truth of the unproven allegation that Big Tech companies help themselves to the content produced by news organizations and refuse to share the profits they accrue from that larceny. 

Always wobbly, that cornerstone assumption has turned out to be pure fantasy.

Into that category we can also place the perceptions of the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the man who shepherded Bill C-18 through Parliament, Pablo Rodriguez, and the woman now responsible for the department from which Rodriguez recently fled, Heritage Minister Pascale S- Onge.

All three are clearly miffed that Meta opted not to be shaken down for hundreds of millions of dollars and chose instead to no longer accept links to news stories on its Facebook and Instagram platforms. First, St-Onge and Rodriguez demanded, in light of Yellowknife and Kelowna wildfire evacuations, that the web giant reverse its “reckless” decision to comply with the law by blocking news links.

When Meta failed to flinch, Trudeau, who is personally invested in this legislation, weighed in.

“Facebook is putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety,” Trudeau said firmly upon returning from a family surfing vacation.

Meta’s actions, he added, were “inconceivable.”

To be fair, he probably believed that. After all, the government and those who lobbied for the bill (and at one point figured they’d be hauling in as much as $100,000 per journo as a result) still hold to the prayer that Meta is bluffing about getting out of the news business. They truly believe news is vital to Meta’s bottom line. It isn’t.

So by the end of August, Mark Zuckerberg’s California-based company had pretty much completed its shutdown of news on Facebook in Canada. Instagram is almost there and next comes Threads. While there’s no doubt some users are missing the presence of news links, Meta’s initial testing indicated Facebook was a happier place without them and the harassment and bullying complaints that they trigger.

The big takeaways, then, are not just that the government’s assumptions were and remain dead wrong, as illustrated by the prime minister’s insistence he is saving democracy and St-Onge’s intellectually fantastic walkabouts concerning non-existent exemptions in her own legislation. 

No, the big ones are that Meta has comfortably passed the first test of ensuring that, in a crisis, it can still provide vital information without linking to news. In doing so, it has also revealed the harsh reality that journalists aren’t as important as they used to be or think they are.

In the 20th century world in which St-Onge, Rodriguez, and Trudeau remain anchored, first responders and other critical public safety officials depended heavily if not entirely on broadcasters to get the word out in an emergency. They were the primary intermediaries through which alerts and evacuation notices were transmitted.

They remain important partners over the airwaves, but those same news carriers are far less significant online, if at all. There, governments, police, firefighters, hospitals, etc. all have their own websites, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, Twitter/X handles, comms teams—you name it—and can communicate directly to the public without assistance.

In addition, there are now emergency alert systems nationwide (the first was created in Alberta following the 1987 Edmonton tornado when some broadcasters failed to interrupt programming to issue warnings).

This is the harsh reality of which Trudeau, Rodriguez, St-Onge, and C-18’s most vocal proponents remain oblivious. The cold, hard facts are that Meta has smoothed its way through the early stages of its divorce from news. All information of importance during the evacuations was available wherever connectivity was possible and evacuees have been able to communicate their concerns and swap tips on Facebook in a fashion superior to anything legacy media can offer.

The next test will come if Google follows through on its threat to de-index news from its search engine. 

The government, desperate to avoid that scenario, is already preparing to throw innovators under the bus to please legacy organizations while grasping for other face-saving ways to declare victory while in full retreat. Google insists that no matter what happens, access to vital information in emergencies will be unimpaired. This doesn’t mean people urgently looking for critical data will get directed to Global News or the Toronto Star. But, Google says, Canadians will be able to get everything they need straight from the sources, as has been the case so far with Meta.

News organizations will of course suffer heavy financial losses and the public will be further inconvenienced if Google joins Meta’s blockade. Citizens, though, will remain able to access local, national, and international news via apps, websites, and over the air.

The lesson that Trudeau’s government should have learned over the past few weeks is that the internet is not broadcasting. On the world wide web, information necessary to ensure public safety can be successfully relayed without the intermediary assistance or even the presence of the nation’s news hounds.

To see it otherwise is to exist in the world of make-believe within which this government’s internet policies have been conceived.

Steve Lafleur: The Conservatives talk tough on housing—But even their plans are far too timid

Commentary

The headline was bold. “Torontonians making median income need to save for about 25 years to buy a house in the city.” That was the takeaway from a National Bank of Canada housing affordability study this summer. Bold as it was, I’m not sure it quite captured the depths of the problem. This isn’t just a middle-class problem. Even the mayor’s salary isn’t enough to qualify for a mortgage on the typical GTA home!

Typical households without inherited wealth have virtually no chance of getting into the city’s housing market if they haven’t already. But it’s not just middle-class income earners that are locked out right now. If your household income isn’t in the top ten percent, and you don’t have home equity, substantial savings, or family wealth, you’re probably not getting into the Toronto housing market. 

Yes, you read that right. The top ten percentile. National Bank’s study estimates that the qualifying income required to buy a typical GTA home is $225,042. In other words, a family needs to be within the top ten percent of income earners in order to qualify for the typical GTA mortgage. They also require a downpayment of $222,236. This excludes the vast majority of people who don’t already have significant home equity or family money. To put that in context, the mayor earns $216,160.13. Good thing she already owns a home!

The numbers are less daunting if we’re looking at condos, but the math there still isn’t great. National Bank lists the qualifying income for a typical GTA condo at $160,820. According to Statistics Canada, the families in the 90th percentile for household income earn around $162,000 (with a downpayment of just over $40,000). Toronto city councilors earn $128,346.89. With a second income, new city councilors might well have a hope of getting on the property ladder. 

Of course, these are averages. Surely a bootstrapping couple could sniff out a bargain if they’re willing to commute a bit further, and maybe give up on that second bedroom. Indeed, even in the Old City of Toronto there are condos available for under $600,000. So theoretically, there is some hope for people without family cash outside of the top ten percentile to get onto the property ladder if they’ve got the downpayment. Anecdotally, take one condo listing in a trendy east end neighbourhood for $599,000. Some quick and dirty math using a bank mortgage calculator suggests a required income of about $150k and a downpayment of around $37k. That still means being in the eighth decile of income earners—and about $66k above the median household income in Toronto. 

Of course, there are many assumptions that go into these calculations. For instance, if you’re already on the housing ladder and have some equity built up, trading up may be easier. Or you might have substantial savings and investments or (more likely), parents willing to give you an advance on your inheritance. So, in reality, there are a lot of people out there who don’t have especially high incomes but have the ability to buy homes. My point here is that income isn’t really enough, unless you’re near the top.

Now, I know it’s not news that Toronto housing is expensive. But I don’t think most people realize just how bad it’s gotten recently. After all, around two-thirds of families own their homes. Most didn’t buy them yesterday. And a lot has changed over the past few years.The average Toronto home price was under $500,000 until 2013. It climbed to over $600,000 in 2015; over $700,000 in 2016; over $800,000 in 2017; over $900,000 in 2019; and over a million in 2021. Those headlines hit really differently if you already own a home than if you’re saving, in vain, for a downpayment.

The worst part of this is that it’s hard to envision a scenario where prices are lower by the end of the decade than they are now, absent an economic catastrophe. The reason is simple: there’s a large gap between population growth and housing completions—not just in Toronto, but Canada-wide. While there’s been outmigration from Toronto to the rest of the GTA and out of the province, the markets people are moving to are getting bid up because they’re not able to build fast enough to accommodate Toronto expats. While there was a bit of slack in housing markets outside of Toronto, that’s largely gone now. So there isn’t really a pressure release valve for Toronto’s housing market. 

Lest I seem nihilistic, there are things we can do to get more housing built. Indeed, local and provincial governments in Toronto and beyond have made some progress—particularly in legalizing “missing-middle” housing (e.g. housing types that range from duplexes to small apartments). However, there’s much more to be done. 

There’s a pretty broad consensus that we need to double housing starts to make up for a deficit of somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million houses and to accommodate growth. However, even though we’ve pulled some notable policy levers, housing permits are on the decline as high interest rates and a tight labour market pressure the home-building sector. So we’re not just failing to meet the required pace of increase. We’re falling further behind. 

Reversing this decline is going to take a wartime effort, as many others have written. We’re going to need the provincial government to finally implement all of the 55 recommendations of its Housing Affordability Task Force (thus far it’s stuck at eight). But we need the federal government to get involved as well. 

There are plenty of levers the federal government can pull, ranging from tax policy to building social housing—though, as I’ve written elsewhere, we should temper our expectations for how much we can achieve through social housing. I want to focus on one idea in particular that I think is both well overdue, and that needs to be bolder. 

I’m talking about tying infrastructure funding to local home building. The idea is controversial—or was, until recently. After all, a lot of people are rightly squeamish about the federal government attaching strings to funding for subnational governments. Moreover, it was pretty consensus until recently that the federal government didn’t have much of a role in housing policy. But local governments face terrible incentives when it comes to housing. They answer to existing homeowners, not prospective home buyers. If the goal is to get more homes built, the provincial government is better positioned to oversee land use. But federal policy influences home prices in a number of ways. In a housing emergency, we should expect them to react.

Besides, tying infrastructure funding to homebuilding makes sense even outside of a housing crisis. After all, large public transit projects are justified in part by the idea that more transit service will lead to more nearby housing. There’s even an industry term for it: “transit-oriented development.” If you’re building a train station and not permitting nearby housing, you’re not going to get the originally projected ridership numbers. If the federal government is going to spend money on local public transportation, they should demand results. 

Of course, the details will matter. This is what keeps me up at night. The Conservative Party has committed to this approach. That is commendable. But their targets aren’t ambitious enough. According to their website, a CPC government would:

Require unaffordable big cities like Vancouver to increase homebuilding by 15 percent annually or face big financial penalties and have portions of their federal funding withheld.

Fifteen percent isn’t nothing. That would be progress. But, recall, we need to double housing starts. We don’t just need a few extra apartments by transit stops. We need a homebuilding boom like nothing we’ve seen in decades. That will ruffle a lot of feathers. Longstanding homeowners in Old Toronto and Vancouver won’t like it at all. 

Having a concrete plan to meet Canada’s housing needs would draw some fire. The pearl-clutching would be relentless. We’ll hear all kinds of sob stories about people worrying that an apartment on their block might lead to more traffic (or cast shade on their gardens!). But if we want to avoid pricing an entire generation out of the housing market, we’re going to need more than just rhetoric. We need bold action. 

In the meantime, we can hope that governments of all stripes find religion on housing. Anyone seeking to replace those governments needs to come up with a credible plan if they want to move the needle on housing affordability.