Why housing is still haunting Justin Trudeau’s government
With his party down as much as 10 points in the polls and his big cabinet shuffle looking like a damp squib, Justin Trudeau didn’t step to the podium in Hamilton on Monday trying to hand his political opponents a gift. But when he told reporters: “I’ll be blunt….housing isn’t a primary federal responsibility,” that’s exactly what he ended up doing. It was yet another sign that his government still doesn’t get it on the housing file, and that it will almost certainly lose the next election if that doesn’t change soon.
In fairness to the prime minister, he was technically correct in his remarks. Unlike national defence or the postal service, the housing market and its growing list of woes does not fall solely or even primarily to the federal government. But when a growing number of Canadians are watching their futures get trampled to death by soaring housing costs, pointing out how the division of powers works in Canadian federalism isn’t likely to be well received. That’s especially true when the leader of the Opposition and his social media team can contrast the prime minister’s statement against his previous words on the subject.
The significant role that previous federal governments played in delivering housing — including, ironically, the one led by his own father — doesn’t help his argument here, either. “During the ‘stagflation’ squeeze and oil shocks of the early 1970s, the minority Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau (backed by the NDP) legislated the National Housing Act — which spurred the formation of housing co-ops and provided grants to restore old homes and build social housing,” the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’s Ben Isitt wrote back in 2009. “Nearly 1,000,000 low-income Canadians were housed through an array of federal and provincial programs during these innovative years.”
There’s a second truth embedded in Trudeau’s comment, one that’s much more significant than the technicality around the division of powers and responsibilities. If housing isn’t a “primary federal responsibility,” that’s at least in part because his own government refuses to treat it as one. If it could move mountains during the COVID-19 pandemic, why can’t it be bothered to nudge more than the most modest molehills when it comes to housing? When young Canadians are practically begging for a shock-and-awe strategy, why are the Trudeau Liberals giving them shrug-and-blah instead?
That approach was personified by the recent announcement in Hamilton, one that will deliver a grand total of 214 new units of housing. Yes, every little bit helps right now, but when the prime minister is personally announcing such tiny drops in the proverbial bucket, it makes you wonder if the Liberals have any intention of filling it — or if they even know how.
The Conservatives don’t have a quick fix for the housing crisis, of course, and that’s in part because there are no quick fixes here. But at least they’ve figured out how to show they care about it. “We will fight tooth and nail against big cities that say no to more housing,” Conservative housing critic Scott Aitchison tweeted. “And yes, it is a fight for more housing. The gatekeepers and special interests will do everything they can to stop Pierre Poilievre and I. But it is a fight worth having.”
He’s right. As the Globe and Mail’s editorial board noted in a recent piece, the backlog is still at the civic level, where governments continue to slow-roll the sort of major changes that are required. In cities like Vancouver and Victoria, councils have made superficial improvements to their zoning laws that were kneecapped (deliberately, one suspects) by the additional regulations and requirements they imposed. “The housing market is tilted against new buyers and renters,” they wrote, “with existing and new supply running well below demand. This is the root cause of Canada’s housing supply squeeze and blame can be pinned on local politicians who oversee rules that allow — and mostly disallow — new housing.”
If Trudeau’s government doesn’t find a way to join this fight, housing-sensitive voters — and especially younger ones — have every reason to give Poilievre’s Conservatives a trial run. Sure, some of them would probably rather continue voting Liberal, while others might find Poilievre’s digital theatrics and populist politicking off-putting in the extreme. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and for some reason the Trudeau Liberals still don’t seem to realize that.
Getting rid of the minister who wrote an op-ed defending said municipal leaders and their role in the housing crisis is a start, but that’s more of a parry than a punch. Trudeau will have to start throwing some real haymakers if he wants to prevent the same young voters who put him in office in 2015 booting him out in 2025.
Chrystia Freeland and the tragedy of the political commons
Justin Trudeau isn’t the only Liberal to have his own remarks weaponized against him lately. Last week, during a media availability on her visit to Prince Edward Island, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland talked at some length about the impact of the carbon tax on the island. She tried to relate her own experiences, both as a resident of downtown Toronto who bikes and takes transit and a child of northern Alberta (one who, like many rural Canadians, got her driver’s licence on the first day she could), to what people in the Maritimes are experiencing right now as the federal carbon tax and rebate kicks in.
It did not go well.
The Conservative Party of Canada clipped her answer so that it appeared she was responding to legitimate concerns about the impact of the carbon tax on P.E.I.’s car-oriented tourism industry with a blithe suggestion that they could take transit or bike. “Freeland’s message to Prince Edward Islanders worried about 61c/litre carbon tax: move to Toronto and get a bike!!!” Poilievre tweeted.
That wasn’t actually Freeland’s answer, of course — just the wind-up to it. She shared the entire clip, without the selective edit, on her own feed. The full version probably didn’t allay many concerns about the carbon tax’s impact on the P.E.I. economy, if only because the Conservatives and their proxies in the media have been salting the earth here for months now with exaggerated claims about the costs and total silence about the rebates. But this dust-up speaks to a tragedy of our political commons, one in which politicians feel emboldened to misrepresent or deliberately misunderstand the ideas and beliefs of their opponents.
Most of us want elected officials who are willing to speak in more than just robotic sound bites and talking points. But the nature of digital media and the ubiquity of video (and video-editing software) makes that increasingly difficult, as Freeland’s experience makes clear. The more you extemporize about a given subject, the more likely you are to serve up a quip or clip that can be used against you. And every time that happens, you become less willing to stick your proverbial neck out and actually engage authentically with people.
Like many political obsessives, I long for the days when prime ministers and reporters could go back and forth the way Pierre Trudeau and CBC reporter Tim Ralfe did about the War Measures Act in 1970. Part of the problem is that we don’t have politicians who are as intellectually agile (and curious) as Trudeau was. But a bigger part is that this sort of encounter is just too dangerous for anyone with a sense of risk management to take on willingly.
That’s the tragedy of the commons here: while those sorts of prudent choices make sense on an individual level, they deprive us of the richness and complexity in our political dialogue that we could really use right now.
(And yes, I’m aware of the irony here, given my previous item about Trudeau’s housing comment. Such is the tragedy.)
The EV race just keeps speeding up
For all the recent chatter about how electric vehicles are supposedly “piling up” in dealership lots (as we discussed in last week’s newsletter, this analysis misses the forest for the trees in epic fashion), the future for EVs just keeps getting brighter. The latest development is an announcement by General Motors, VW, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Mercedes and Stellantis that they’ll be partnering on the buildout of their own massive charging network.
This is a direct response to Tesla’s recent charging-related announcements, and it sets the stage for a very interesting contest to see who can build the biggest network the fastest. Their planned multibillion-dollar investment will build “high power” charging stations with 30,000 plugs in cities and along major travel corridors, further allaying any fears drivers might have about access to electrons. “The network formed by the seven automakers would be public and open to all electric vehicle owners,” the Associated Press’s Tom Krisher reported. “It will have connectors for both Tesla’s North American Charging Standard plugs as well as the Combined Charging System plugs used by other automakers.”
All told, it should double the number of charging stations in North America, further de-risking the choice to go electric. That doesn’t mean the campaign against electric vehicles, one that’s being funded by major players in the oil and gas industry, is about to go away any time soon. But their ongoing attempts to scare potential car buyers out of exploring new alternatives just got a little bit more difficult.
Good news of the week: A big geothermal breakthrough
I’ve always been intrigued by geothermal energy and more than a little confused about why the oil and gas industry in Alberta hasn’t embraced it more enthusiastically. After all, it involves many of the same skill sets that industry already has: namely, using drills and other heavy machinery to find energy buried under the surface of the Earth. They can even repurpose old oil and gas wells, which are a major problem in Alberta, into new geothermal projects.
The answer, of course, is that they already know how to make money one way and aren’t particularly interested in learning another. But the recent news out of Texas might just change that equation. Fervo Energy, a Houston-based geothermal outfit, announced a successful test at its Nevada-based “Project Red,” which it describes as “the most productive enhanced geothermal system in history.” It suggests that 24-7 renewable baseload power isn’t just possible but economically attractive, and with the backing of powerful partners like Google, there could easily be more advances like this around the corner.
Remember: for the longest time, and as recently as 2010 (hello, Jeff Rubin!) experts thought the billions of barrels of oil marbled into the tight oil shales in the United States were largely inaccessible. In just over a decade, technology helped unlock that resource and turn the United States into the biggest oil producer in the world. Technology, in other words, can turn the improbable into the inevitable.
The same could be true of geothermal. There’s huge potential, especially along the western part of North America, for major geothermal development. When combined with wind and solar, it could help backstop the buildout of even more low-cost renewables — maybe enough to power the entire grid one day. In a 2022 paper, a trio of American researchers suggested: “Successful development of this technology could unlock hundreds to thousands of gigawatts of geothermal resource potential nationwide, with up to 120 GW deployable by 2050.”
Nowhere is that same potential more obvious north of the border than in Alberta, where there is the same combination of drilling technology and geological opportunity that Fervo is tapping in the U.S. southwest. The only impediments, it seems, are a provincial government that sees new renewable energy technology as a threat and an industry that can’t quit its old way of doing business.
On Monday, I wrote about Ontario Liberal leadership aspirant Nate Erskine-Smith and his desire to change how politics are done in this country. As I said in the piece, I’m a bit biased here for a number of reasons. But I heard from some very wise people that I was overlooking another equally transformative candidate in Yasir Naqvi, who would be the first Muslim premier of Ontario. In the spirit of fairness, here’s the Star’s profile of him.
I also joined Charles Adler on his podcast for another conversation about Canadian politics and why the federal Liberals are sleepwalking towards electoral disaster.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t draw your attention to our own Linda Solomon Wood’s take on the ongoing fight between big tech and Canada’s media. Read it here.