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Eric Lombardi: Will Pierre Poilievre stand up to Doug Ford, Canada’s biggest gatekeeper?

Commentary

No political leader has tapped into the seething anger of Canadians over the affordability crisis quite like Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre. This crisis, fueled by a government-induced supply-demand imbalance in housing, has seen prices for ownership and market rents double since 2010 as Canada’s economy becomes increasingly neofeudal. These dark economic shifts have hit young Canadians the hardest, turning homeownership and even having children into class symbols of hereditary wealth

Poilievre’s resonance with voters on housing issues has significantly boosted his popularity, indicating a significant majority government if an election were held today. After coining the notion term “gatekeeper” during an April 2021 House of Commons rant on housing affordability, it has since become a key part of his brand and an unmissable term in the national conversation. Under his leadership, the federal Conservative Party has rallied around the slogan “Bring it Home,” clearly aiming for the prime minister’s office by channeling public frustration squarely at the troubled housing file. 

Poilievre shone a light on the issue with a standout video critiquing “municipal gatekeeping” in Vancouver, referencing a CD Howe Institute study to underscore how local barriers and taxes can cause the cost of new homes to skyrocket—up to $1.3M in Vancouver and $350,000 in Toronto from 2011 to 2022. He followed this up with a mostly-accurate viral explainer on the causes of the housing crisis. His housing narratives have been powerful precisely because they speak to the “left-behinds” increasingly aware of the frustrating costs and barriers governments impose on new housing, and therefore their domestic dreams.

A Conservative contradiction

Yet Poilievre has been too quiet—even silent—on the poor track record of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government.

Now halfway through its second term, Ford’s majority government, re-elected in 2022 to “Get It Done” and “Build, Build, Build” housing, has objectively failed on its promise to spur the construction of one and a half million homes by 2031. Housing starts are falling backward, from 91,885 in 2022 to 85,770 in 2023, embarrassingly short of the 150,000 a year needed to meet the target. 

Meanwhile, the most significant recommendations from 2021’s Housing Affordability Task Force — an implied roadmap for Ford’s election promises—remain unimplemented. The government’s lazily legislated Bill 109, the “More Homes For Everybody Act”, has builders complaining that it has actually made processes slower a year later. Much-needed reforms, from by-right fourplexes to upzoning around major transit areas, to a long-promised updated building code, show no signs of life.

The slow pace of provincial and municipal reforms set the stage for the federal Liberals to launch the $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund, largely to bribe cities in Ontario and British Columbia to implement reforms they should readily adopt themselves as a matter of good governance. British Columbia, under Premier David Eby’s NDP, secured federal funding directly by embracing a series of provincewide market-oriented reforms and became a North American leader. In Ontario, by contrast, Ford’s response has sounded a lot like a gatekeeper: “You can’t have a federal government… dumping funding and not even discussing it with the province.”

“Get off my lawn” Conservatives

Last month, Ford’s directly appointed chair of the “Housing Supply Action Team”, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, saw his city’s own application to the Housing Accelerator Fund rejected by federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser for its lack of ambition. Dilkens, citing his provincial role to defend himself, let slip that the province would not be pursuing critical, pro-housing reforms.

What’s been the reaction from Poilievre or the federal Conservatives to the mayor’s NIMBYism or the Ontario government’s poor housing record? Not much. A quiet subtweet from Conservative Housing Critic Scott Aitchison that didn’t acknowledge the mayor directly.

But few examples highlight the shamelessness of the Ford government’s gatekeeping like the saga at 175 Cummer Avenue in Toronto’s affluent Willowdale neighbourhood. In 2021, amidst a severe homelessness crisis, Toronto City Council nearly unanimously sought a Ministerial Zoning Order from Ontario to construct a 56-unit supportive housing development on public property. 

Of course, they encountered resistance fueled by typical NIMBYism. What was different however was that it was actually facilitated by Progressive Conservative MPP Stan Cho, who undoubtedly exerted backroom influence to stop his government from issuing it. The result? A two-year delay due to a frivolous appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal that was ultimately dismissed this January. This pointless obstruction cost Toronto hundreds of thousands of dollars and delayed crucial housing for thousands of its chronically homeless residents.

In this particularly egregious case, the federal Conservatives weren’t just silent. They’re reportedly keen to have Cho to run for them. Progressive gatekeepers rightly get scorned, but apparently, conservative gatekeepers are put up for a possible promotion.

As Canadians cast their gaze beyond the worn path of the Trudeau government, the spotlight turns to Poilievre—challenging him not to be just another “all bark and no bite” leader on housing. The Ford government’s unserious dithering has only deepened our housing quagmire. Encouraging Ontario’s lazy government into action is the most effective way for Poilievre to demonstrate his rhetoric is more than hot air.

The question now is, will he break ranks with his fellow Conservatives in Ontario and call them out for their policy failures? The answer will ultimately reveal his own commitment to ending Canada’s housing crisis.

Michael Geist: Why the Bell Media layoffs and the government’s failed media policy are connected

Commentary

Bell’s announcement this week that it is laying off thousands of workers—including nearly 500 Bell Media employees—has sparked political outrage with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau characterizing it as a “garbage decision.” The job losses are obviously brutal for those directly affected and it would be silly to claim that a single policy response was responsible. Yet to suggest that the government’s media policy, particularly Bills C-11 and C-18, played no role is to ignore the reality of a failed approach for which there have been blinking warning signs for years. Indeed, Trudeau’s anger (which felt a bit like a reprise of his Meta comments over the summer) may partly reflect frustration that his policy choices have not only not worked, but have made matters worse.

Bill C-11, the online streaming law that is now before the CRTC, was never really designed to address Bell’s broadcasting concerns. Indeed, the company made clear what it wanted: access to cheap U.S. programming. When the company appeared before the committee back in 2022, it said its primary risk was competition from foreign streaming services accessing the Canadian market directly and bypassing Canadian broadcasters. This challenge has been readily apparent for years. In fact, in 2011 I wrote about how this was likely to become a major issue for Canadian broadcasters dependent on licensing U.S. programming to profitably fill their broadcast schedules:

Once U.S. rights holders conclude that it is more profitable to retain the Internet rights so that they can stream their programs online to a global audience and capture the advertising or subscription revenues that come with it, Canadian broadcasters may find that they can only license broadcast rights with the U.S. rights holders competing directly with them via the Internet.

This was back in 2011. More than a decade later, Bell wanted the government to fix the commercial problem by intervening through Bill C-11:

“We can ensure the central role of Canadian broadcasters by securing access to foreign content. We can also incentivize foreign streamers to partner with Canadian broadcasters, much like foreign linear services have done for decades. We believe Bill C-11 should explicitly enable this.”

Bill C-11 rightly doesn’t do that, but removing licensing fees said to be worth $40 million was supposed to help. That approach of shovelling money through grants, tax credits, reduced fees, or regulated payments has been the government’s go-to strategy for years and the only thing it seems to bring are demands for more.

The layoffs on the news side of the business implicates both Bills C-11 and C-18. In the case of Bill C-11, broadcasters are still holding out hope that the CRTC will order the large online streaming services such as Netflix, Disney, and Amazon to contribute to their local news production costs. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters has asked the Commission to create a new News Fund that it would administer. Funding for the fund would come from the Internet streaming services, with 30 percent of their contribution allocated toward a sector with which they have virtually no connection whatsoever. Even if the CRTC agrees, the fund would not take effect until later this year and Bell was apparently unwilling to wait to see how it plays out.

While I have seen some suggest that Bill C-18 has nothing to do with radio station sales or layoffs, the government’s approach is inextricably linked to it. First, the government’s longstanding media approach has largely focused on print and digital news outlets, not broadcasters. For example, the labour journalism tax credit worth hundreds of millions of dollars excludes broadcasters. It is now worth nearly $30,000 per journalist, but broadcast journalists are not eligible. I think there are serious problems with this approach (not the least of which is the implications for press independence), but the government clearly made a bet that it could focus its attention on the traditional print sector with the expectation that hugely profitable companies such as Bell would continue to support their news divisions. Much like the mistaken bet that Facebook couldn’t live without Canadian news, the same may be true for parts of the broadcasting sector.

Bell Canada signage is pictured in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

Second, the government promoted Bill C-18 as providing hundreds of millions to broadcasters for news. Indeed, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that it would generate $329 million, with 75 percent of that money going to broadcasters. Given Bell’s position in the market, it stood to be one of the two largest recipients of those revenues (alongside the CBC), amounting to tens of millions per year. But as everyone knows, Bill C-18 ultimately only generated a fraction of what was promised, with a single $100 million payment from Google shared among all sectors. Once the administrative costs and lost Meta deals are taken into account, that number is closer to $75 million, some of which is a re-allocation of existing Google money.

For Bell, the revenues are even smaller, however, because the government then decided to cap the amount allocated from Bill C-18 to broadcasters at 30 percent or $30 million (the CBC picks up another 7 percent). In other words, broadcasters went from expecting a quarter billion dollars in annual payments from Bill C-18  to support news to just $37 million for the entire television and radio broadcast sector. Further, those radio stations that do not produce news content to be made available online aren’t eligible for anything and everyone has lost traffic and the resulting ad revenue due to the removal of links on Meta. To suggest that this had no impact on Bell’s media decisions this week is to engage in the same policy fantasies of the past few years that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and placed the independence of Canadian media at risk.

This column originally appeared on michaelgeist.ca.