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The Weekly Wrap: Poilievre proves he’s no empty populist with capital gains pushback

Commentary

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 18, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor-at-large, analyses for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

Normally the Weekly Wrap covers three important or interesting topics from Canadian policy and politics over the previous week. This week, however, it only covers one topic. That’s partly because my family and I are on vacation in North Carolina and in part because I think there’s one story that deserves heightened attention.

This week, the Trudeau government tabled a parliamentary motion to effectuate its increase to the capital gains inclusion rate first announced in April’s budget. The motion passed with the support of the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois and will take effect on June 25.

The Conservatives ultimately voted against it. This may not seem like a huge surprise. But the party’s opposition to the capital gains tax hike wasn’t necessarily a sure thing. As I wrote last week, its growing support from working-class Canadians and the inherent challenges of being seen to defend preferential tax treatment for high-income earners were causing the Conservatives to be somewhat diffident in their response to the pending tax increase.

That changed this week. In a comprehensive and effective 15-minute video, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre outlined the flaws of raising taxes on capital during a sustained period of economic stagnation and why he and his colleagues would rightly oppose it.

I’ll come back to the video in a minute. But it is worth dwelling on what an extraordinary policy this is. Even if one accepts that it will affect a relatively small number of taxpayers—though analysis for The Hub by leading tax economist Jack Mintz estimates that the number of Canadians affected will be much higher than the government’s own projections—the notion that it won’t have negative economic effects belies virtually everything we know about behavioural responses to taxation in general and capital taxes in particular.

Yet Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s prepositioning speech last weekend simply dismissed these economic costs and instead set out a series of strawman arguments about how if Parliament didn’t enact her tax hike, children would go hungry at school and teenage girls would get pregnant because they cannot afford birth control.

Brad Bradford: One year ago I ran to be Toronto’s mayor. The city is truly ‘paying’ for the leader it chose

Commentary

Mayor John Tory talks to councillor Brad Bradford in the council chamber ahead of a budget meeting in Toronto, on Wednesday, February 15, 2023. Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Late May 2023. I was standing backstage at the TVO (Ontario’s public broadcaster) and the Toronto Region Board of Trade Toronto mayoral debate, my body tense with nerves.

Not because of the debate itself. My wife Kathryn and I were expecting our second child to arrive any day and there were signs that it might be that evening. We had the hospital bag packed and I kept my cell phone on the podium, warning journalist and debate host Steve Paikin beforehand that I would have to leave mid-debate if that text came in.

As the other candidates and I covered some familiar territory on the stage—debating who had the better housing plan, asking Olivia Chow how high she’d raise taxes, and challenging each other’s records—I kept glancing down, watching as my cell phone dipped in and out of signal.

Ninety minutes later, I exhaled. No knockout blows against me and—more importantly—no emergency texts.

I did not have running for mayor of Toronto on my 2023 bingo card.

After being re-elected in 2022, Mayor John Tory appointed me as the chair of the Planning and Housing Committee. I worked with the mayor to launch the Housing Action Plan at our first council meeting, laying out an ambitious agenda for the term to finally change the policies and regulations that were standing in the way of more housing options for Torontonians. It was full steam ahead on getting things done.

And then Mayor Tory held his shocking Friday night press conference where he resigned over impropriety and everything changed overnight. Toronto was about to have the biggest by-election in Canada’s history—an election that came out of nowhere.

Looking back a year later, I feel the campaign revealed some important truths about Toronto and our political culture. It also helped reinforce for me why I decided to get into politics and who I’m fighting for.

The campaign that was

I first ran for Toronto City Council in 2018 because I was working at city hall as an urban planner in the chief planner’s office and was frustrated with the lack of action on urgent priorities, particularly getting more housing built. So I ran, outworking the competition and odds-on favourite (a former NDP member of Parliament) to win my seat by 288 votes.

After four years on council, I saw the impact I could have as a local councillor in breaking down bureaucratic barriers to get things done—working to provide tax relief to small businesses, improving road safety measures across my ward, and withstanding misguided NIMBY opposition to get a much-needed supportive housing site built.

When Tory resigned, I started to think about what would come next. I believed in many of the priorities that the former mayor had focused his third term on, but I felt a deep sense that we needed more decisive action. That message was echoed by thousands of Torontonians I spoke with who wanted an accelerated approach to fix long-standing problems, not a fundamental 180 in direction.

There’s a perception that urbanism and progressive politics go hand-in-hand, while the right side of the political spectrum is seen as antagonistic toward cities. This misconception partly arises because centre-right parties often have few elected representatives from major cities, limiting their opportunities to share their perspectives on urban issues. Consequently, Canada’s centre-right is often absent from ongoing discussions about addressing urban challenges.

I saw how Tory built a centre-right coalition and governed, as well as the void that was being left with his departure. As the pandemic waned and with the city armed with new strong mayor powers from the provincial government, there was a need for leadership that could deliver practical solutions for the real challenges people were facing in their daily lives.

So, I decided to run.

Inspired by the principles of limited, better government and the need to be pragmatic, my team and I landed on Less Talk, More Action as the focus of my campaign. It captured the energy and impatience I felt to deliver on these priorities with common-sense solutions. It reflected what the people of Toronto needed—and still need.

Less Talk, More Action was a response to the frustration of endless chatter at Toronto City Hall, where we would spend hours debating inconsequential items while important issues got deferred and delayed for months by a council hesitant to make a decision.

To pick just one example, a two-hour debate about whether or not to change the name of SmartTrack transit stations, before ultimately voting not to, without spending a single minute on how to advance transit construction and improve service in the city. This was the type of silly dialogue and time-wasting that really makes people (understandably) feel like city hall has lost the plot.

Hitting a policy brick wall

Running for mayor was a humbling experience—exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. We crisscrossed the 640 square kilometres of the city every day, connecting with dozens and sometimes hundreds of citizens at a time and engaging with the media to amplify and share our ideas.

It gave me a real insight into how unique each neighbourhood in Toronto really is and how many things we actually have in common. Whether it was a Somali mother in Rexdale or a small business owner in Queen West, they were frustrated about how disconnected city hall was from their lives.

Poorly planned construction. Violent and random attacks on the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission). Ballooning housing costs, with rents for a one-bedroom apartment hitting nearly $2,500 a month. These were what most would talk to me about, looking for answers and reasons to be optimistic. Not to mention, each year, the average Toronto driver loses 118 hours to congestion. It is a daily nightmare, and worse, politicians are notionally resigned to this just being the reality of living in the city, where residents are destined to suffer through the chaos.

So I made it my mission to propose solutions:

  • Working with experts to put together comprehensive plans to address safety on the TTC through increasing police, improving mental health outreach, and building subway platform doors.
  • Creating a housing plan focused on the changes needed to get shovels in the ground and deliver new homes—not create some new bureaucracy and imaginary targets that could never be hit.
  • Hiring a “congestion relief commissioner” who could coordinate major construction projects (to protect against the simultaneous construction and closure of parallel routes), accelerate the Gardiner Expressway highway rebuild by allowing 24/7 construction, and hire more traffic wardens to keep people from blocking intersections.

I’m proud of the ideas we put forward, but it was hard for them to cut through all the noise and apathy that plagues our civic discourse. People’s lives were busy, and they weren’t focused on digesting the nuances of policy differences between candidates. It didn’t help that there were six serious contenders, myself included. Debate stages were crowded, to say the least. There were a whopping 102 candidates on the final ballot—including one guy who said he was running on behalf of his dog Molly. (Over the course of the campaign, I learned this was, unfortunately, the only fact about the election that most people absorbed.)

My campaign team stressed for days about how much detail to include in my housing plan, something I’m passionate about and professionally trained in. Ultimately, we followed my communication director’s advice to keep it simple. Because significant details about housing plan announcements can’t be captured in 15 seconds on the TV news, our unique approach blended into all the others.

Even one of my most controversial policy announcements couldn’t cut through: opening up tendering for city-run construction projects to provide more competitive and transparent bidding, delivering better value for taxpayers. While the topic was wonky and difficult to explain, I knew it presented a real solution that would save the city hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis. It would also drive a contrast with other candidates who were beholden to special interests and a few select powerful unions that ultimately drive up real costs for us all.

While it did create that contrast, ultimately, it still did not connect with regular people. Folks would see or hear the 15-second clips of what each of the top six candidates did or said that day and move on. The only real headlines were about the weekly polling numbers—some of which did not seem grounded in reality. The polls were clearly the story of choice for newsrooms with dwindling staff and resources, which just added to the confusion.

Looking back a year later, I’m most proud of the ideas I put on the table. Over the course of the campaign, I found my voice and feel more confident and comfortable than ever, with mission clarity about who I’m fighting for and why it matters. It was an incredible learning and growth opportunity, even though the results were not what I hoped for (I wound up in 8th place).

I’m a fighter by nature, but my tone came off too aggressive and negative at times—especially over social media when, early in the campaign, we had to push hard to gain name recognition. Our tactics achieved that objective, but they ultimately undercut the pragmatic solutions I was putting forward and allowed my opponents to paint me as a villain.

This is where I think people underestimate the hard work involved. Name recognition is a metric of how well-known a candidate is. It encompasses their life’s work: relationships, experiences, and networks across the city. Chow did not win just because she was the most well-known. She won because she had all of those things in spades and a political organization ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice.

The Toronto Left’s secret weapon

What the by-election also demonstrated was the extent and effectiveness of the campaign machine that Progress Toronto had built. Although Toronto doesn’t have municipal political parties, Progress Toronto essentially functions as one, supporting left-wing, NDP candidates, and running campaigns to defeat centrist and right-leaning councillors like myself. They aren’t shy about it on their website: “We believe the path to building a progressive city is through building power and changing power.”

At first, there was a lot of speculation and uncertainty around who their “chosen” candidate would be. But having Chow, former NDP MP and wife of federal NDP leader Jack Layton, step forward instantly changed the campaign equation. She was the frontrunner.

Her name recognition from decades of holding elected office (she was first elected as a school board trustee before I was born), combined with the data, volunteers, and machinery built up by Progress Toronto, proved to be an unstoppable force. They are perpetually organized and flicked the switch to turn the institutional left-wing labour machine on. Credit to them.

This demonstrated more clearly to me than ever before that city hall is run by the people who show up. And when centrist and conservative common-sense folks aren’t speaking up for their needs and desires, the special interests and left-wing activists are the ones who run the show.

Olivia Chow as mayor

The Torontonians I met during the campaign are hopeful, but they are facing a daily struggle building their lives here. They aren’t looking for the ideological score-settling that the council’s left-wing has spent 12 long years waiting for. They just want solutions and the understanding that the local government actually cares about their day-to-day problems.

These are the folks I was fighting for in the campaign. And over the past year, it’s been revealing to see how the new mayor has approached the job.

There has been some important progress on getting new funding arrangements for the city—with a provincial deal that took the Gardiner Expressway off our books and nearly a half-billion in funding from the federal government.

However, our housing crisis keeps getting worse as the wheels spin at city hall. We’ve only broken ground on one affordable “Housing Now” site, despite having approvals ready for three. None of that half-billion from the federal Housing Accelerator Fund has been allocated yet. There have been zero results from the so-called public builder that Chow is trying to stand up. The idea of creating more bureaucracy to create more housing is grounded in an ideological worldview rather than reality.

Twelve months in and it’s not clear to me what Chow’s real priorities are. So far, it seems to have been spending a lot of political capital on introducing an illegal cap to ride-sharing licences that ultimately had to be walked back, presiding over an increase to the vacant home tax that saw more than 170,000 households incorrectly threatened with thousands of additional dollars in taxes, and attempting to claw back badly-needed dollars from the police budget.

Congestion in Toronto remains brutal and world-class in all the wrong ways. Yet the mayor and her team have been completely silent on plans to get the city moving (apart from adding more bike lanes), grow our economy, attract investment and talent, and restore the optimism that fueled Canada’s largest city for generations.

She has eclipsed her own campaign promise of a “modest tax increase” with a record-breaking hike that nearly hit 10 percent—the first of several significant hikes we’ll likely see before the term ends. Couple this with a freshly-inked contract for TTC workers that will be the most expensive transit collective bargaining agreement in North American history. Costs continue to soar.

As people struggle to pay the rent, buy groceries, and fill up the gas tank, Chow has definitively made Toronto more expensive. Higher taxes and more new spending is not the answer. Toronto needs leadership that will focus city hall and its tens of thousands of staff on creating an impact that improves the lives of people and neighbourhoods in our city.

All things considered

One of my biggest takeaways from the campaign was just how disconnected most people are from their municipal representatives. After having experienced local politics up close and personal, I now have absolute clarity about the mutually reinforcing challenges of citizen disconnection and the political complacency holding us back.

I suspect this state of affairs was a product of having eight years of relative stability at city hall. Though some criticized John Tory’s approach as being too cautious and indecisive, for most Torontonians, a “bland” managerial style was a feature, not a bug. They liked having a mayor who was calm, competent, and could serve as a respectable representative. Government often works best when it’s not front and centre on every file. But it also means many voters were lulled into a false sense of security.

As our family got together earlier this month to celebrate our daughter Bronwyn’s first birthday— she arrived safely just over a week after that TVO debate—it made me think about what her future holds.

What type of leadership is required today so that in 20 or 30 years, she’ll be able to picture building a life in Toronto? One where she can find housing she can afford, have access to opportunity and growth, and have mobility to get around the city and feel safe doing so.

No one knows what 2026 will hold, but it’s that question—for my own family and for yours—that keeps me laser-focused on doing everything I can at Toronto City Hall to make life in this city more affordable, safer, and easier to get around.