When Doug Ford stepped up at last week’s premiers’ meeting to denounce the federal government’s direct housing deals with municipalities as “jurisdictional creep,” you had to wonder why he seemed surprised.
Isn’t jurisdictional creep what Mr. Ford and his fellow premiers keep promoting? It sometimes seems like their main mission when they get together is to push accountability for provincial jurisdictions onto Ottawa.
If they don’t want their jurisdiction to creep away with it, they’d better watch out, because the social-media, team-fan nature of modern politics increasingly makes political issues national.
That’s a growing feature of Canada’s politics, one that’s been embraced in one way or another by all the leaders of the major federal parties, and a worrisome part of the shifting political culture.
But let’s not let premiers off the hook. They are, in some ways, authors of their own creep.
In January, they were lighting their hair on fire, demanding cash from Ottawa to deal with the primordial crisis of our time in health care. After Ottawa added $46-billion over 10 years to health transfers, the fire under the premiers’ hats seemed to cool. Health care is still in crisis, but organizations representing doctors and nurses were begging them to put the issue high on the agenda for their July meeting.
Now the provinces are complaining that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government is treading on their turf with housing-accelerator agreements struck with cities and towns.
And they are right. Under Canada’s Constitution, municipalities are creatures of the provinces.
Ottawa’s housing accelerator agreements step into municipal matters by trading funding for commitments from towns to build more homes by doing things such as changing zoning rules to allow four-unit or four-storey residential buildings, encouraging apartment towers near transit and dropping development charges.
Those are municipal matters, and therefore provincial jurisdiction. But many of those provinces, and their premiers did little or nothing about them. Mr. Ford, notably, failed to take care of business in his own jurisdiction.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Trudeau should get a pass.
The Prime Minister deserved the flak he took in the summer for trying to dodge accountability by saying it isn’t a primary federal responsibility. Some solutions are in the hands of the feds – such as the September move to finally come through on the Liberals’ abandoned 2015 election promise to remove the GST from rental units. The public was calling for the national leader to act.
But Mr. Trudeau wasn’t wrong in suggesting the provinces have a lot of the levers.
Those premiers who didn’t use them should have been pilloried for that failure long before Mr. Trudeau’s government ever signed its first housing accelerator deal – which, by the way, was only in September.
It’s worth noting that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre seems to think premiers aren’t taking responsibility, too. He has proposed his own leap into municipal matters by threatening to withhold federal funds from cities that don’t meet his targets for housing growth.
While the feds are guilty of jurisdictional creep, it is fuelled in part by accountability creep. And by a shift in political culture in the news media, and among the public.
In the U.S., political scientist Eitan Hersh has argued that growing “political hobbyism” is damaging political culture, referring to the superficial consumption of political news, social-media team-fan identification and celebrity politics. He argues attention is shifting to the bigger stage of national politics even though many things that matter most to people are in the bailiwick of local or state government.
Some of that is happening in Canada. The hollowing-out of local news means less attention for municipal and provincial government. Cheering for or against national figures, for Team Trudeau or Team Poilievre, pushes issues to the national stage.
That’s less true in Quebec, where provincial politics is the centre stage and protecting provincial jurisdiction is a popular cause. So it’s no wonder Mr. Trudeau’s government made a deal for Quebec’s government to oversee housing accelerator deals, with each putting up $900-million.
In the rest of the country – possibly excluding Alberta, because of its antipathy to Mr. Trudeau – don’t expect the public to get up in arms about this kind of jurisdictional creep.
If anything, there is more of it to come. Blame the feds, sure. But one bulwark against it is scrutiny on provincial governments, and premiers, so accountability doesn’t get pushed farther away.