Conservatives don’t barge into what are properly local decisions and use the power of the federal purse to get their way

Published Oct 18, 2023  •  Last updated 5 hours ago  •  3 minute read

A 'For Sale' sign in front of a row of homes in a subdivision in Vaughan, Ont.
A ‘For Sale’ sign in front of a row of homes in a subdivision in Vaughan, Ont. Photo by Cole Burston/Bloomberg files

By George Fallis

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Conservatism defies definition. Different commentators use the word to mean quite different things. It’s therefore very useful that as it was born the Conservative Party of Canada provided a summary of its founding principles that its national convention has periodically updated (most recently in March 2021).

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For the CPC, conservatism means that the country should be governed “in accordance with the Constitution of Canada, the supremacy of democratic parliamentary institutions and the rule of law” — principles our other political parties are unlikely to disagree with. In addition, however, Conservatism believes that one guarantor of the prosperity and well-being of the people of Canada is “the freedom of individual Canadians to pursue their enlightened and legitimate self-interest within a free competitive economy.” Conservatives are also “committed to the federal principle and to the notion of strong provinces within Canada” and support “the restoration of a constitutional balance between the federal and provincial and territorial governments.” Conservatives would offer “reflective and prudent leadership.”

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How does the Conservatives’ current plan for solving Canada’s housing problems measure up to these principles? Not very well.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre originally announced the plan last spring under the headline: “Fire the Gatekeepers. Build Homes. Fast.” In September, he provided slightly more detail under the rubric “Building Homes, not Bureaucracy.” He starts off blaming Justin Trudeau for the fact that house prices have risen so much, but then shifts to blaming municipal gatekeepers. It is unclear whether these gatekeepers are civil servants or elected politicians but, in any case, under the rule of law a prime minister cannot fire either.

Poilievre then moves on to specifics. The federal government would set a target for municipalities for how much they must increase homebuilding annually — for big cities like Vancouver and Toronto the target would be an annual increase of 15 per cent. If they did not achieve that, federal infrastructure funding would be reduced by the percentage they fell below target.

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This is an odd proposal from a conservative who purports to understand markets and how they work. Municipalities do not build houses, builder/developers do. Housing starts are now falling, despite continuing high prices. Does Poilievre really think this is the fault of municipal gatekeepers? Of course, it isn’t. Starts are falling because builders expect that continuing high interest rates and weakening job markets will mean declining demand for houses in the near future.

It’s also an odd proposal from someone who purports to respect the constitution and wants to restore the balance between federal and provincial governments. Housing and municipal affairs are provincial responsibilities — into which the proposal is an extraordinary intrusion. I wonder if Pierre Poilievre consulted his fellow conservative, Premier Danielle Smith of Alberta.

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But he goes even further, deep into the minutiae of municipal affairs. He would allow Canadians to file complaints about NIMBYism with the federal infrastructure department. When complaints were legitimate, Ottawa would withhold transit and infrastructure funding. Claims of NIMBYism usually arise when a developer/builder has requested a variance to a zoning bylaw, likely for a bigger house or higher density than is currently allowed under the law. Neighbours protest, saying it will change the character of the neighbourhood. I can think of nothing more properly local, yet Poilievre thinks the federal government should get involved.

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There is nothing conservative about the Conservatives’ proposed housing policy. It is neither reflective nor prudent. It crashes around, willing to break things and run roughshod over jurisdictional boundaries to demonstrate decisiveness and concern. Some people might say the policy would be better labelled “Liberal.” I’d call it populist, but it is certainly not conservative.

George Fallis is professor emeritus of economics and urban studies at York University.

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