After nearly eight years in power, one thing has become abundantly clear about Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government: it can’t communicate to save its increasingly vulnerable political life. From the carbon tax to COVID-19, its otherwise good policies are consistently undermined by a total inability to explain them to Canadians. And for some reason, it seems determined to add its response to Canada’s housing crisis to this list.
Witness the op-ed published last week in the National Post under Minister of Housing Ahmed Hussen’s byline that almost seemed designed to irritate young people in Canada’s biggest cities. It began with the patronizing suggestion that housing “is not a political issue,” one that was undermined almost immediately by a lengthy political attack on Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre. But as Matt Lundy, an economics reporter for the Globe and Mail, noted on Twitter, “I assure you, we think it's political!”
Hussen went on to suggest that Poilievre’s criticism of municipal politicians and their role in choking off new sources of housing supply was unwarranted. “We see it differently,” he wrote. “We trust the mayors of Canada’s communities to do the right thing.” The problem is they have consistently done the wrong things on this file for as long as the Liberals have been in power — and, to be clear, even longer. But that doesn’t seem to register with Hussen.
Neither does the fact that by discouraging Canadians from criticizing local governments and their well-documented habit of slow-walking new development and catering to NIMBY concerns, he’s implicitly encouraging them to blame someone else. That someone, of course, could easily be his own government. After all, his op-ed talks about the creation of 500 new housing units in the City of Hamilton like it’s a real contribution to affordability rather than a tiny drop in Canada’s woefully empty housing bucket. As pro-density advocate and economist Mike Moffatt noted, when compared to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s projections, which show we need 5.8 million new homes over nine years to restore affordability, those 500 units amount to 0.0086 per cent of what’s required.
Yes, the Liberal government implemented a national housing strategy in 2018, an $82-billion plan to build more social housing and help first-time buyers get into the market. That’s more than the Harper Conservatives did while they were in office, and it marked a welcome return by the federal government to the table. But so far, it’s been insufficient to meet the growing challenge housing poses for so many people. It’s like trying to fight a house fire with a water gun — sure, it’s better than nothing, but it’s not doing much for the people in harm’s way.
That doesn’t seem to have gotten through to the Liberals. In his op-ed, Hussen wrote: “We are putting Canada on track to double housing construction over the next decade. And we are just getting started.” But after eight years in power, and with a housing market that is more treacherous and less affordable than ever, Canadians don’t want to hear that the government is “just getting started.”
Why am I making such a big deal out of a bad op-ed? In part, because Hussen’s piece managed the unusual feat of annoying his party’s allies more than it did its enemies, one that confirms my longstanding critique of this Liberal government’s biggest weakness. But it’s also because it betrays the sort of thinking on this file that’s happening around the cabinet table and within the inner circles of the Trudeau government. Those tables and circles, of course, all happen to be filled with people who own homes (in some cases, multiple homes) and aren’t nearly as exposed to the pain this issue is inflicting on so many.
Speaking of which, there’s a very telling line right at the beginning that might offer a window into what's going on there. “For hundreds of thousands of Canadians across the country, the most important issue right now is housing,” Hussen wrote. But he’s vastly underestimating both the scale of the problem and the number of people it’s affecting. It’s not “hundreds of thousands” of people who are affected by soaring rents, rising ownership costs and a growing mismatch between the number of people we’re bringing into Canada and the number of homes we’re building for them. It’s many millions, from young people who can’t get into the market to seniors who can’t find a way to downsize and parents who know their kids won’t be able to afford to live on their own any time soon. For all of these people, it is the most important issue they face — a genuinely existential threat to their future, their family or their prosperity.
So make no mistake: plenty of Canadians are more than happy to politicize this. If anything, they probably think it hasn’t been politicized nearly enough. The fact that younger voters in Canada’s big cities and suburbs are more open to Poilievre than they’ve been to a Conservative leader in decades should be a huge, flashing warning sign to the government. That support, after all, has nothing to do with his habit of posing with anti-LGBTQ bigots or non-existent climate policies, and it’s definitely not a product of his charm or charisma. It’s a reflection of the fact that he’s the only federal leader who seems to be taking this issue seriously. If the Trudeau Liberals don’t start doing the same, they’ll deserve to lose the next election.