Consider the Eglinton Crosstown. The east-west transit line through Toronto was supposed to open in 2020, but it’s still a construction site. The provincial agency in charge of the project can’t say when it will be finished. And the City of Toronto is so short of cash that, if and when the badly needed line is ready, the city may not be able to afford to put it into operation.
It’s one more example of something Canada has far too much of these days. There are five-dollar words to describe it, but let’s keep things simple. File it under: “Important Stuff That Isn’t Working.”
Last week, I wrote about the federal budget deficit – and argued that, given its relatively small size, we have bigger problems to worry about. If the deficit were outsized and growing (and yes, the current Liberal government or a future Conservative government are more than capable of engineering that), I’d put it at the top of my compendium of concerns. But for now, it isn’t.
Want something to lose sleep over? I have a list. It’s long.
Canada has lots of Important Stuff That Isn’t Working. The trouble is government. Not its existence – its competence. Peace and order don’t just happen. Good government is their necessary precondition.
And it’s in short supply.
Some stuff that isn’t working is hard to miss. Since June, 1999, housing prices in the 11 largest Canadian markets are up 332 per cent, according to the Teranet-National Bank House Price Index. In Toronto, prices are up 388 per cent. In Vancouver, they’re up 446 per cent.
The story of how that happened is complex. All levels of government have played a part, by commission and omission.
Restrictive municipal zoning rules made building hard. Foreign investors found it easy to speculate. Under the federal Liberals, annual immigration has nearly doubled, with the number of temporary workers and students rising much faster. Provinces, above all Ontario, encouraged an explosion in the number of visa students, with their tuition fees allowing Queen’s Park to cut taxpayer support for college education.
Every level of government acted like housing all those extra people was somebody else’s problem. It isn’t.
Or consider medicare, our erstwhile national pride.
Even if the delivery of most health care services were to be shifted to the private sector – and your family doctor is already a private businessperson – government would still have to manage the system. Government would still have to negotiate with providers, and oversee everything from coverage to billing rates to quality standards.
There is no magic “privatization” that will give every Canadian a family doctor – one in five Canadians don’t have one – or empty emergency rooms, or lower waiting times. The reason European countries have more successful health care systems than ours is better system design (by government), and better management of the system (by government).
Or consider Canadian economic productivity, the foundation for rising standard of living. Compared with other highly developed countries, our productivity growth has been lagging. The average Canadian worker produces just 79 per cent as much an hour as the average American. We’re also behind all advanced European nations, even Italy – once a poor country that sent immigrants to rich Canada.
A lot of the blame falls on Canadian business, which invests less in productivity-enhancing plants, equipment and technology than businesses in other countries. But changing that state of affairs will only happen if governments come up with policies to change things, and skillfully manage them.
Would lower taxes and less government do the trick? It’s not that simple. Though Canadians find it hard to believe, our tax burden is well below that of most highly developed countries. Europe’s most successful economies – Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria – have much higher taxes than Canada, which pay for better public services. Their workers also produce more GDP per hour.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the Important Stuff That Isn’t Working. I’ll end with something thousands of people in our largest city endure every day: the King Street streetcar.
A few years before the pandemic hit, Toronto cooked up a quick and cheap idea for improving public transit through downtown. The King streetcar, the busiest surface transit line in the country, was given priority over cars. That boosted its speed, and its ridership.
Before the pandemic, the line was carrying 84,000 people a day – more than an entire subway system in Miami, or Dallas’ 150-kilometre light-rail system.
Toronto created a surface subway through downtown. Time to build: days. Cost: nothing. Was this not good government in action?
The model should have been extended and expanded, but five years later, it’s falling apart. The reason: Government isn’t governing. Through-traffic from cars has migrated back on to King Street, and no one is stopping it. As a result, travel by streetcar on King is now slower than it was before the creation of the transit corridor, according to data obtained by CityNews.
The height of absurdity arrived last week, when a Toronto police officer is reported to a have ticketed a King streetcar – for blocking private car traffic. The result was a backup of streetcars, filled with hundreds of commuters.
Citizens stuck in gridlock were left shaking their heads, wondering why Important Stuff Isn’t Working.