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MP Adam Chambers talks affordability, housing, and conservatism in a populist age

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue features Conservative Member of Parliament Adam Chambers who joins to talk economic and fiscal policy, his policy goals as a new MP, and the implications of generational change within Conservative politics.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Adam Chambers, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Simcoe North. Adam is his party’s deputy shadow minister of finance and a member of the House’s Finance Committee. He was previously an insurance executive and policy adviser to finance minister Jim Flaherty. I’m grateful to speak with him about some of the big economic questions facing the country, his early experiences as a new member of parliament, and what he hopes to accomplish in the current parliament. 

Adam, your maiden speech in Parliament focused a lot on the questions of deficits and debt and the extraordinary debt accumulation that we’ve seen in recent years. We had a multi-partisan consensus in favor of balanced budgets prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Is it fair to say that that consensus has been undone? And if so, what would you attribute its demise to? 

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: I think over the last number of years, and probably since the crisis, the public has been largely desensitized to the notion of governments running large deficits. Every major province in Canada runs significant deficits. There was a point in time around 2006-2007, where every provincial government was in surplus except for one. But since 2008, we’ve been, I think, largely desensitized to governments running large deficits, including our large trading partner to the south, which for a number of years has had a significant challenge with budget deficits. And so, you’re getting into the numbers of billions, and hundreds of billions of dollars, and I think people tend to not necessarily fully digest what that actually means and what we’re giving up by running these large deficits. 

I would say the demise is likely a result of a few things, but some of that responsibility has to be put on our political leaders and politicians themselves who have kind of allowed this notion to become mainstream that governments can run deficits, even when times are good. It seems to me, at least federally, the story is now when times are good, we need to spend, and when times are bad, we need to spend more. And what I think we need to do a better job of making the case for why it’s important for governments to make priorities, so that we have the money to spend on the things that all Canadians rely on. 

You mentioned there was a bit of a multi-partisan consensus prior to 2008. I would just note for listeners that there was a Liberal cabinet minister, Minister Anand on a podcast last week or a week ago—two weeks ago—who mentioned that she was hearing a lot about intergenerational equity with respect to debt, and I couldn’t agree more. And it’s nice to know that there are some members of other parties that are thinking about this. I hope that we see some of that reflected in the federal budget that’s to come, but that does give me some hope that there are other politicians and other parties that are thinking about what this means for future generations. 

You know, the federal government spends, call it just round numbers $30 billion of on interest payments on the debt per year. I mean, that’s $30 billion that doesn’t go to some of the social services that we all rely on. And if you chalk that up against some of the promises, big promises, that governments have made, in respect of childcare, etc., you realize how much money actually is there and could be available to spend on programs that we think are important that everybody relies on. 

SEAN SPEER: In your answer, you raise both the forthcoming federal budget, as well as questions of intergenerational equity. We’ll come back to those later in the conversation. But for now, I want to talk a bit about growth because of course balancing the budget involves both addressing expenditures, but also possibly raising revenues through higher rates of economic growth. Although Canada’s economy grew significantly in 2021 and is projected to maintain relatively high growth in 2022, it’s then expected to fall back to sluggish growth of roughly two percent annually thereafter.

Is slow growth the natural order of things now? Do Canadians need to change their expectations about growth for the foreseeable future? Or is there a role for public policy to push up growth beyond what’s been described as the so-called “two percent trap”?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: We do have strong growth, or we will see strong growth in 2021, but that’s largely because of coming off a base of 2020, which was quite challenging. We had almost record, I think, growth in Q3 of last year, but we had a record drop in Q2, which hadn’t been seen for likely a generation. So, I think to answer your question, it’s probably a bit of both. There’s a little bit of expectations management we have to do. However, I think, to kind of give in to low growth as being the normal is to turn our back on the reasons why the capitalism system works, and to turn our back on innovation, productivity, and reasons for growth and why people want to build more and build businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit. 

Yes, of course, the system produces some inequities we need to address, and that’s where government comes to the table. I would say, is there a role for public policy? Absolutely, but it’s probably not the public policy that I would recommend that we’ve been seeing over the last number of years, which is using public sector money to try to stimulate growth. 

I think if you look at some of the things that previous government did in 2008, Prime Minister Harper and Minister Flaherty during the Great Recession, our economic stimulus programme significantly involved the reduction of taxes, both on individuals and on businesses to spur activity in the economy. So, how do we think about creating an economic environment where businesses can flourish rather than have more people using the public purse to potentially shift some of the money around on more of a wealth redistribution basis versus this notion of growing the pie that I think all governments need to be striving for. I’ll just leave with your listeners a couple of examples. 

You know, since 2015, I think there’s been on average about 10,000 new civil servants hired every year. That’s 60,000, civil servant jobs on a, on a relatively—you know that that’s a significant number for the Government of Canada since 2015 or 16. That’s not to say all these roles are not needed, but I think, you know, that’s where we’ve seen some of the growth in this country has actually been on the public sector balance sheet versus the private sector balance sheet. 

SEAN SPEER: In your answer, you started to outline some differences in terms of how the parties think about the role of government and the range of policy tools that ought to be pulled and used in the name of promoting higher levels of growth.

Let’s shift to the forthcoming budget, where the government ostensibly will be responsible for trying to reconcile some of these differences across parties, because of course it’ll be a budget tabled in a minority Parliament. The government will require support from some of the opposition parties if it’s to pass its budget, and in turn, maintain the confidence of the house.

So, let me put this question to you. What are the Conservative Party’s priorities for the forthcoming budget? Are there some particular policies that you and your colleagues would like to see reflected that you think could indeed contribute to higher rates of growth in the economy?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Absolutely. So, some of these, I’ll call them priorities, are things that I’ve been hearing a lot. We’re on what we call a constituency period of time, where we’re out and about in the community, talking to small businesses and other people in the community. Some of the priorities that I’m looking for are around some of the things that we’re dealing with right now. So, as an example, health spending for provinces, you know, that’s a big-ticket item. But just given the current environment where we’re with COVID, I think provincial governments are looking at the federal government to say “Look, you know, we need some predictable, longer-term plan on health spending” and recognizing that that’s a fairly large ticket item on terms of spending. I do think we need to turn our minds to the more growth elements. 

And so, how do we make sure that governments actually running efficiently for the country in terms of fiscal responsibility? It’s been at least 10 years, Sean, and you’ll remember this from our time back in Ottawa, it’s been at least 10 years since the government has done any real review of its spending priorities. I think we could find a fair bit of money there. You’ll recall some of those programs that we did post-2008 in the crisis. Ten years is a long time to kind of go without a real kind of check and balance on spending on a system. I think the time would be right to ask, “Are we getting value for money in a lot of spending areas?” So that we can have the money in the funds to invest in those priority areas. 

I think there’s some smaller items that I thought were really interesting in the Conservative Party platform. There was a movement to create, like they do in the UK and in the U.S., about social trust for employees to actually own businesses. So, this is helping businesses transfer ownership from an owner if they’re looking to retire or exit the business, but actually providing ownership of that business to its employees. And so, there’s a pretty specific tax change you can make to make that happen. But I think that would also help distribute some of the wealth inequality in the system, in some of these businesses, but also providing owners with comfort that their businesses will continue on into the future.

I think there’s some I’ll call other, other smaller items, and I’ll leave those for a minute. But at the highest level, I think the government has to recognize what everybody’s talking about right now, which is, and I mentioned the health spending, and the other is affordability. And if the government does not recognize that Canadians are getting squeezed at virtually every time they turn around, whether it’s at the grocery store, at the fuel pump, at purchasing anything in a home, which is Canadians’ largest purchases, affordability as a theme should be a prime, front and centre part of the budget. And I think that’s what we would be looking for as a party. I wouldn’t speak for the party itself, and we’ve got an apparatus to do that, but in terms of as a member of parliament, I’m looking for the government to address affordability and acknowledge that we’ve got some difficult decisions ahead of us. 

In particular on housing, but also, you know, we just hit January 1, we increased what you typically call payroll taxes on CPP contributions, and we increased the carbon tax on individuals. In a time of inflation running at record highs, and 30-year highs, approaching 5 percent and likely the next reading will probably be at 5 or higher percent is that the time when we need to be telling people that they have to spend more on taxes? Not necessarily sure that now is the right time to do that. So, I’ll be looking for recognition of affordability as an issue, as a crisis in many ways, some nods to some fiscal responsibility, and how are we going to make sure government spending efficiently. And there may be some other unique smaller things I’ll be keeping an eye out for. But if the Speech from the Throne or the Fiscal Update is any kind of foreshadowing of what’s to come it may be a little bit difficult for us, but I’ll keep an open mind until we see the budget.

SEAN SPEER: Adam, you’ve identified some big-picture priorities for the forthcoming budget. Let’s turn to some of your personal priorities as a new parliamentarian. You’ll be one of the first MPs to introduce a private member’s bill in the new parliament. As a general question, what are some of the issues that you want to champion that may not be on top of the fold of major newspapers but you think parliamentarians need to be thinking about and debating solutions for?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Sure, it’s a great question. Yes, I was close to the head of the pack when drawing the Private Member’s Bill Lottery, which is an exciting opportunity to bring something forward. Of course, in a minority Parliament, you know, it unlikely to last four years, so it’s important or lucky to have a spot and an opportunity to do this sooner.

A few issues that I’m following closely—I’ll call them my own personal priorities—and perhaps some of them would be reflected in the budget, but if not, I’ll be looking to consider some of the following, including, on money laundering. I think Canada has a great reputation in the world for identifying money laundering activities. That is, you know, FINTRAC and CSIS, I think, do a fantastic job of identifying issues. Where I think we do a less than stellar job would be on the action or the prosecution of money laundering, and why I think this is an important issue is because of its distortive effects, in particular, on our housing market.

And there is some great work being done. In particular, there’s a book just called Willful Blindness by Sam Cooper, a fascinating read for people who maybe don’t fully understand the extent to which foreign actors and global criminals really view Canada as a safe haven for money laundering. And often, you know, this money ends up in the property market, the real property market, the real estate market across Canada, and in a couple of large centres, as you can imagine. And I think that has a significant distorting effect on the price of real estate. And affordability in real estate is quite possibly the number one issue that I’m hearing about, in particular from young people. 

This is a generation of people, probably for the first time in this country, where a growing majority of young people believe that homeownership is out of reach, or might be out of reach for them in their lifetime. And if you compare Canada to other jurisdictions around the world, yeah, in large cities, like London, or Hong Kong, or New York, there’s many places in Europe, there’s this, you know, renting is actually quite, quite common, but it’s a definite shift in terms of mindset for Canadians, in particular on Canadians today. So, I think that money laundering has a significant impact on the affordability of housing. That’s an issue I’m following very closely.

And two other quick ones: One, how do we find workers—and that will help with growth and economic recovery. But one of the groups of people that I think we have that walk among us are Canadians with disabilities that have the skills and ability to work but, for whatever reason, have some barriers to entering the workforce. I think there’s about 400,000, at least, Canadians that would say—we’ll call them underemployed—that have a disability, say, an intellectual disability as an example. How do we help those Canadians enter the workforce, that will help them in terms of giving them some economic opportunity, but also help what is becoming a huge problem across the country: finding people and workers to help with the economic recovery and getting people back to work? So, I think there’s actually an untapped resource there. 

There’s been a lot of work done over the last few years in the federal level in terms of resources for employers, but are there other barriers that we could be helping reduce to encourage Canadians to get into the workforce? I think that’s something that is really important, that should get a little bit more airtime.

And then to put some of your listeners to sleep: tax reform. I think we’re long overdue for some tax simplification or some kind of Royal Commission-like review of the tax code. It’s become incredibly complicated. I would love to see some innovations in terms of making it easier for Canadians to have their taxes filed, not necessarily that auto file. Although I’m open to those suggestions, but how could we engage the private sector and some of these like start-ups that have done a lot of work to make that experience of filing taxes a lot easier for many Canadians, and making it easier for them to access some of the supports that are available to them?

I think it’s important to involve the private sector in that discussion because, as you know, when the federal government tends to do things on the, say, software side, it doesn’t typically end very well. We have some unpleasant precedent with the Phoenix pay system. But I do think it’d be important to consider how do we make Canadians lives easier when dealing with the federal government, in particular CRA and filing taxes?

SEAN SPEER: Those are a great set of issues and I know our listeners will look forward to your eventual Private Member’s Bill in the coming weeks and months. You mentioned housing, and housing strikes me as one of those intergenerational issues that you’ve also spoken about thus far. Which brings me to my next question. 

You’re part of a growing, intergenerational change in the world of elected Conservative politics. We now have an increasing number of federal Conservative parliamentarians who are millennials. And we also have millennials in senior posts in Ontario, Alberta, and other provincial conservative governments. What do you think this generational change may ultimately mean for conservative politics in Canada? Will it have ideological implications? Will it change the set of issues for which conservatives are focused and championing? Just give us a sense of what a new millennial conservatism might mean? 

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: I’ve been very encouraged in terms of my short time in Ottawa by the number of young people that we have as members, as leaders within the party, as future leaders within the party, but also leaders today. You mentioned at the provincial level, I think it represents not necessarily a significant change, but what I would kind of posit would be that our big themes will remain. 

I think, as conservatives, focus on the economy, focused on how do we support families? How do the conservatives bring forward kind of smaller government-type principles to deal with social issues? But where I think things will look a little different, is probably in the ranking of priorities. And you might hear some things get a little bit more airtime now with a younger caucus than you might have previously. 

And so two issues for people to keep an eye on: one would be, we just talked about it, is housing affordability. I think any young person today, or any millennial, I think, is looking at a housing market that looks increasingly out of reach. What are the conservative ideas for solving that issue? I actually think this is a significant opportunity for conservatives across the country because I think in terms of solutions to the housing crisis and affordability crisis, I think it’s small “c” conservative principles that are actually going to have the most amount of impact and have the most amount of promise.

If you think about increasing supply and think about some of the other encouragement of the private sector to be involved in building more supply, looking at federal government land and buildings—not talking about Crown land, of course, talking and protected land, I’m talking about, you know, old Canada Post buildings in some cities—and how do we turn that into affordable housing. There’s actually one in my riding, a Canada Post building in my riding, that is going to be turned into affordable housing units. How do we do more of that across the country? These are, I’ll say, small “c” conservative ideas that can impact to a positive degree this issue that many young people are focused on. 

And I’d say the party, for a number of years, didn’t have a very good story to tell young people—or didn’t have a story that resonated is perhaps a better way to frame it—didn’t have a story that resonated with young people, but some of these issues they care about. 

The other would be on childcare. And so, we spent the last election, you know, that was a major issue in the last election. The federal government currently is going through its deals with it with the provinces. I think on a go-forward basis the party will need to figure out what’s the childcare policy that looks right for them going forward, and what’s the one that we can stand behind in front of all Canadians, in particular, young people. 

So, I think conservatives have a future. It’s great to see that both levels of government have young engaged members of parliament and provincial legislatures that will be around for a while to help shape and evolve the conservative narrative. But I’m very encouraged about what I see.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s talk a bit about the Conservative Party and conservatism more generally before we wrap up. Going back to the pre-merger of the modern Conservative Party, Canadian conservative politics has long had a mix of what you might describe as “elite conservatism” on one hand, and a populist conservatism on the other hand. 

As we’ve seen in American conservative politics, when those two poles get out of kilter, in either direction, the consequences can be significant. The rise of Trumpism was in part a consequence of elite neglect of the movement’s populist wing; the January 6 riots were a consequence of overreach in the opposite direction. How does the Canadian Conservative Party manage the balance of being responsive to base voters without being hostage to base voters?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: If people knew the answer to this, you probably could make a lot of money as a political consultant. You know, first, I’d say some of these populist movements, it’s worth noting can happen both on the right and on the left. And I think if you were talking to some of, say, my colleagues in the Democratic Party in the U.S., I would say that they also have some issues within their party in terms of more extreme elements kind of taking up a little bit more of the airtime. And so, how do you, as a mainstream party, recognize the populist issues, but also, I think, present, thoughtful, reasonable ideas that represent our version of conservatism or progress, if you will, on some of society’s biggest questions of the day? 

And you mentioned, the rise of Trumpism being a bit of a consequence of an elite neglect. And I think that’s right. I think that Mr. Trump didn’t create this movement. I think he significantly benefited from it. Some of it would have existed whether he was there or not, he just happened to capitalize on that movement at that time. And so I think it should serve as a warning shot to many—we need to listen to people even though we disagree with them, or may disagree with them on a whole host of issues. 

If you take, for example, the hyper-politicized discussion around vaccine mandates across the world—and in particular in our country, because we allowed it to become a political issue—where we go from here is we have a lot of people, regardless of whether we agree with them, whose relationship will forever be severed with the state. And that is a difficult thing to consider what the implications are, you know, three and five and ten years down the road. It doesn’t mean we need to coddle them and accommodate them to a significant degree; it doesn’t mean that we should completely give in. I think it means we need to do a better job of listening to the reasons for which people are telling us that they don’t trust government and that they don’t trust politicians. 

I mean, I don’t think it should surprise anybody that people don’t trust politicians very much these days. And so, if the strategy was to get on the TV and have a bunch of politicians tell people to do something, I think most people would have said, “That wasn’t really going to solve the problem.” And instead of actually finding different ways to talk to individuals, all we did was turn up the volume. And we do this on a bunch of different issues, like where we just seem to talk louder, instead of talking smarter. And I think the party itself, the Conservative Party, any party, has to think about those individuals who are a part of the movement and part of the coalition.

How do you listen, but at the same time, never lose sight of some of these core principles that kind of keep and hold things together? And so, for the Conservative Party, I think there’s a lot of core principles around the economy and fiscal responsibility and just general kind of economic growth, and wanting to, wanting to kind of limit, I’ll say, the growth, the significant growth of government that we’ve seen over the last, you know, ten years. 

So, there are some core principles we have to stay true to, but at the same time, I think when you look like you’re purposely ignoring, or tuning out a group of people, then you’re going to start to see some of these more worrisome kinds of movements take hold. And so, that would be, as I say, you know, if you knew the answer to the question, there’d be a lot of people wanting to know exactly what you need to do. But it’s always a balance, and I think every party is going to have to deal with this in the Western world over the next little while, in particular conservative parties who tend to kind of capture a little bit more of that political spectrum.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a very thoughtful answer. Just one final question. As you navigate these tensions of conservatism and populism and some of the other big questions that we’ve discussed today, are there any conservative thinkers, writers, or policymakers across the Anglosphere you find interesting these days, and who are influencing how you’re thinking about your job as a legislator and a policymaker?

MP ADAM CHAMBERS: Sure. I mean, look, I would not necessarily maybe call them small “c” conservative thinkers or just thinkers period. You know, this question, you start to think about who when they write something or they’re speaking to you, you always want to make sure you read or listen to. So, a few names come to mind. I’ve always been a fan of David Brooks in the U.S.; I could always listen to a speech he gives. Not that I always 100 percent agree with him, but I do enjoy the way he approaches issues and talks about them and explains them, and brings with him a little bit of this kind of this compassionate type conservatism that I think we could use more of. 

I think you mentioned you have Mr. Coyne coming up on one of these podcasts. I’ll be sure to listen to it. As I say, you don’t necessarily always agree with individuals, but I always find there to be some kind of thoughtful critique or positioning that I find makes me think about my own views on particular subjects. I like reading Rudyard Griffiths, and of course, I can’t leave without saying, Sean, some of the work that you’ve been doing, personally, has been very helpful to me, but also some of the work you’ve been doing at The Hub and kind of in the public policy space more generally over the last couple years I think is really starting to, you know—you talk about a generational change at the Member of Parliament level or an elected official, I think there’s a bit of a generational change in conservative thinkers in the country, and I’d say that you’re kind of right at the top of that list. And so, I enjoy reading the stuff that you put out.

SEAN SPEER: That’s very kind of you to say, and kind of you to take the time to speak with us today. MP Adam Chambers, Conservative Member of Parliament for Simcoe-North, and his party’s deputy shadow minister of finance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights with us as part of today’s Hub Dialogue.