A cri de coeur of parliamentarians that oppose government is to call everything, real or not, a scandal. To be sure, as I have written on these pages before, there were many within our own ranks that questioned whether this gas plants scandal really amounted to a scandal at all. However, what is undeniably true about the gas plants scandal is this: there has never – I mean never! – been a scandal in Canadian history that has been so independently verified. There were two Auditor-General reports, an Information and Privacy Commissioner Report, an OPP Investigation, a Crown attorney to take the case, and now a judge ruling that criminal things happened.
If you were to ask me in the spring of 2012 whether the cancellation costs of the gas plants that we were asking about in the Estimates Committee would still be part of our public discourse in January 2018, I’d have laughed. And while we had the Energy Minister sitting in our cross hairs, many in the PC Caucus wanted to talk about wind turbines instead. Funny how consequential priorities can be!
Then, as things got hot in the fall of 2012 with my successful contempt motion – the first successful contempt motion in more than a century – things got so out of control for the government, that it had to prorogue and McGuinty announced his resignation. Being in contempt of parliament is a serious charge, as serious as being in contempt of court. It occurred to me at the time how serious it was. We were charging that the Minister of Energy, the Ministry of Energy, and the Ontario Power Authority did not disclose e-mails it was obligated to disclose by order of the Estimates Committee. It was important to word it that way. Both opposition parties didn’t want it worded that specifically Chris Bentley, the Minister responsible at the time, was in contempt. Our deal with the NDP was predicated on maintaining the Minister responsible rather than the individual himself be named in our push. Of course, this is something that was subtle but important, and Liberals never saw this as anything less than a witch hunt against one of their most competent ministers. Nevertheless, the gloves were off and I pushed forth knowing that I just placed a huge target on my back. You may not have known this, but it turns out that a lot of politicians don’t like that kind of fight. However, I just felt like I was elected to do my job holding the government to account, and I wasn’t going to be afraid to do it.
During debate of my contempt motion, every Liberal speech made sure to mention that “the motion form the Member for Cambridge…” i.e. me… “is mean spirited and vindictive.” It didn’t matter that the majority of members of the legislature agreed with the motion. I got the sense that I was going to be a punching bag for awhile. After McGuinty announced his resignation, he met the press and told them that the historic contempt motion was “phoney” and that the whole contempt debate basically shut down parliament to deal with nonsense garbage for more than a week. I think it touched a nerve. Oh, and in some of the e-mails we retrieved that weren’t deleted, we found out that the Premier’s Office debated suing some of us in the opposition over the debacle. They opted against that strategy because they’d have to disclose e-mails during the trial’s discovery, which is what they wanted to avoid.
Then, in 2014, we lost an election. With a target on my back, I lost too. They say politics is a blood sport, and I had to lick my wounds. A lot has been said about that election. You know, the Tory campaign was death by 100,000 job cuts or that we snapped defeat from the jaws of victory. However, I saw then, and see now, that the election was not about any one policy. It was about which would triumph more: Truth or Deceit. The biggest problem of the Tory campaign in my mind wasn’t the 100,000 job cuts. It was that we couldn’t focus the electorate on the fact that this government will do anything and say anything to be in power. We had hundreds of thousands of e-mails – the ones that weren’t deleted – to prove it too. But there we were, being bluntly honest about what we would do without reminding the electorate enough about why we were doing it. Instead, our honesty was spun with the same dishonesty we have come to expect. Reducing 100,000 jobs in the public sector meant we were “firing” people or giving them “pink slips.” I wonder if the 8,000 people who work for Hyrdo One got “fired” once their public sector job turned into a private sector one when the government privatized it? Oh the stuff I’d say if I was still in office! Yet, in 2014, we failed. I failed. It was a tough pill to swallow given how relentless we had been in the legislature. The men and women I served with, both as a caucus and along with our staff, were an incredibly talented group deserving of a shot to govern. It was so disappointing not to have had that shot. I know I am echoing the sentiments of our caucus and staff when I say this.
Returned with a majority government, the Liberals washed the whole contempt and committee report under the rug. To this day, I have not returned to the legislative chambers, but I remember watching the proceedings all summer long, both in debate and in committee. It was killing me, and I had to stop watching. I mean, all that hard work, all those long hours, all that reading, all that strategy, all that media, all that tour, and barely anything to show for it. I got McGuinty’s memoir for Christmas. I read it all. It still sits on my bedside table. The title is called “Making a Difference” and the book reads as fluffy as the title. No contrition in the book. No regret. Only great things. I remember clearly feeling that history would not be written the way I saw it. So I stopped writing my version.
To my surprise, the OPP continued to investigate. When I met with the OPP investigators assigned to the case in my Queen’s Park office in 2013, they told me their investigation would take a very long time – months, if not years. Then, charges were laid. A Crown attorney pursued those charges, and, all of a sudden, what I felt was lost came back. I followed the trial closely. I knew the material as well as anyone. When Peter Wallace took the stand, I simply could not believe what I was hearing. To be clear, I had not expected Peter Wallace to be a great witness. We called him to testify in committee responsible for the contempt charges, and while we thought he was competent, we didn’t get much out of him. In hindsight, it’s probably because we didn’t ask him the right questions, and probably he feels more liberated to talk about it now that he’s out of the provincial government.
And then, a remarkable thing happened last week. Something entirely shocking, in fact. The judge in the trial found Livingston guilty of destroying evidence. The Crown attorney emerged from court saying he wants to lock him up. I really could not believe it. Now, if I was in politics, I probably would have said something stupid like ‘we’re pleased with the verdict, but it’s a sad day for Ontario.’ Screw that! The verdict was a victory for democracy, for good public administration, for the integrity of the Freedom of Information process, for people who want accountable and responsible government, and for those that seek the truth.
I have had an unusual spring in my step. Now there is something to show for all those long days and nights. They say in politics that your true worth and contribution isn’t likely known until some years have passed since you left. That is ringing true for me now.
It is somewhat odd to see that in the court of law you are successful where you couldn’t be in the court of public opinion. Last week’s ruling validated our pursuit of the truth in ways I am only starting to explain. So maybe I will get to write the final chapter of the biggest scandal in Ontario’s history after all, except my tail won’t at all be fluffy.
People have asked me what I think about the PC plan for ‘real change that works for people.’ Admittedly, given my hockey duties on Saturday morning, I only saw about 3/4 of Patrick Brown’s speech to a boisterous PC crowd. I only recently just finished reading the platform, so it’s time I write my review.
One way to evaluate a convention is whether those in attendance feel better about the party’s chances of forming a government after it is finished. My top level opinion to this end, is an emphatic yes! There was an energy in the room and in the halls. People were following caucus old and soon-to-be like they wanted to be part of the win. Patrick gave his best speech yet. He was confident. He was smiling. The whole branding of the people’s guarantee was also fresh, and the platform release in the form of a magazine spread was genius – perfect for a new age of voters. The message was clear and concise. Five ideas form part of guarantee – a contract – to voters. If, as premier, Patrick Brown doesn’t fulfill those 5 promises, he won’t seek another mandate. He must surely be able to do all 5 too, because none of them are bound to running a balanced budget. All are big ticket items – some might call them big government items – and all are designed to be people friendly, or more precisely, appealing to legions of women who hadn’t considered voting PC in years. I have advocated for this kind of approach in the past, so the pitch has some real resonance.
Yet, there I was, on the convention floor, in awe with the spectacle and really pumped about our chances, but I wasn’t wildly clapping at most of it. My first reaction was ‘how on earth are we going to pay for all of this?’ Bob Stanley should me where Kevin Page said the numbers add up, which is fine, but a 22.5% tax cut is huge. So I clap until I realize this massive tax cut to the middle class is being paid for by a carbon tax. And so goes every other goodie too.
The second thought I had was how all these people that I stood next to during the time I was in office fighting for smarter, more efficient government suddenly were going delirious over a platform that replaces some Liberal trinkets with PC ones. We aren’t better off from a fiscal perspective. In fact, government spending will grow by $12 billion under the PC plan. Interest payments on the debt is calculated to grow by about $2.5 billion over the 4 year period as well. Most aspects of the long term infrastructure plan, which is what’s adding billions to our provincial debt, are going to be kept in place. Yet, all these people in the trenches were applauding approvingly at the plan.
It reminded me of the time back in 2009 when I attended a Harper government announcement about the creation of FedDev Ontario. There, in Kitchener on that fateful August day, after years of railing against the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency as one of the more egregious pork barreling agencies of government – the sort that has government picking and choosing which companies ought to be successful rather than the market – I witnessed the creation of more of the same agencies. To make matters even more uncomfortable for me, my friend was named its responsible minister. I remember standing beside Arron Wudrick, now Executive Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, when we chatted about how bizarre it was to be in a room where people were cheering for something they complained about for years. Late that year, in a speech to Conservative Party faithful, PM Harper said, “We will have to be both tough and pragmatic, not unrealistic or ideological, in dealing with the complex economic challenges before us.” The rigid, hard-right Harper of the 80s and 90s was no more, and you can’t help but see the similarities between Brown’s posturing and Harper’s governing.
The platform continues with many of the Liberal governments plans. There is no hint at radical change in the PC approach to colleges and universities. No major shifts in education policies that would significantly enrage teachers – in fact, the PCs seem intent on partnering with them. You won’t read about smaller government, other than a shaving that might be found in a value for money audit (hint: we just had a release this week, so what are we going to cut from it?). There is no real plan to get the debt under control, given that the bulk of our debt growth is related to our infrastructure spending, and the PCs seem intent to carry on with the Liberal long term infrastructure plan, plus adding a few trinkets of their own. Even on minimum wage, where the PCs say they’re going to approach things differently, it’s a policy of $15/hour minimum wage… eventually.
I raise these points because it shows where conservatism is these days. It’s a fear of not looking progressive enough in the eyes of voters. It’s a betrayal to those who believe that smaller government might be smarter and better. It’s an admission that taxpayers can fund government growth in perpetuity. It’s a denial that free markets and capitalism are part of the solution to our economic and social issues. I could go on.
Part of the problem is that modern neo-conservatism is losing the debate, and we don’t have anybody willing to create the conditions for the mainstays of the movement to continue. People aren’t buying the ‘tax cuts create jobs’ or ‘we should live within out means’ as rational explanations for policy anymore. Retrenchment is met with massive resistance by the public sector partners who are larger and better funded than any political party. And so, what we need is a safe space for conservative ideas. We need to create the winning conditions for conservative ideas to make sense for people. We need to make sure that the people, not the special interests, are in control of our government. We must at once define succinctly what governments must do for people, and ensure that we are world-class in delivering these more limited services. As bureaucracies grow, there is a greater disconnect between those at the top and those on the front lines, which doesn’t help with service delivery – something reasonable solutions and discourse can fix. Again, I could go on.
Over the next few months, I will personally be devoting more of my time to providing a home for such ideas to flourish. If you are interested in helping, I’d love to hear from you!
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was a founding father of this country. More than 100 years after he died, we today find ourselves trying to make sense of his legacy.
This latest episode arrives to us by a motion passed at a meeting of an Ontario teachers’ union to ask school boards to remove Macdonald’s name from schools, alleging he “played a key role in developing systems that perpetuated genocide against Indigenous people.”
I want to begin by focusing on the British North America Act of 1867, which Macdonald participated in forming and vigorously debated. There are some great words in it, but my favourite must be what appears in section 91: “Peace, order and good government.”
Let’s first look at the words “good government.” Has anyone ever stopped to think about what this really means? Why did the founding fathers stop at “good?” Why not “great” or “amazing” or, even better, “perfect” government. The Americans wanted “a more perfect Union” for their country, yet we get stuck with a seemingly unimpressive “good government.”
But it is the way our democracy works. You see, we expect our governments to make mistakes. We have these pesky opposition members that ask questions that expose these mistakes. If we had perfect government, there wouldn’t be any questions to ask. These same opposition members put forward proposals to rectify the mistakes and we ask voters to pick their destiny.
If we had perfect government, there would be no need for an alternative path — North Korea seems to be the “perfect” example.
In essence, the contestation of public policy, the debate about whether the government is “good” enough, the partisanship that coalesces around competing viewpoints, are essential components to our freedom.
That is why I support a debate about Sir John A’s legacy. There wasn’t unanimity of opinion about his legacy at the time and there shouldn’t be unanimity now. Governments make mistakes, and progress occurs when we highlight, debate, and learn from them. If nothing else, we should thank Sir John A for promoting a system of government that is the greatest guarantor of our liberty.
I am perfectly fine with some people thinking our first prime minister was racist, but the problem of taking his name off our schools is that it would be a statement that we should all think he’s a racist.
It’s is an example of alt-left political correctness that goes like this: label something racist and if others don’t agree that it is racist, they are bigots.
Call the founding of our country genocide, as some teachers have, and no one can take pride in our nation because it means implicit agreement with wiping out an entire people.
Throw away the debate, the contestation of ideas, or opposing anything.
I stand with John A because he wanted a country that rejected uniformity, conformity of thought, and, dare I say it, consensus. I am a freer person because I can openly oppose and disagree.
A great fear of freedom and democracy, the one that Macdonald so passionately proposed and defended, is that positions are so ridiculed and shamed that they become too politically incorrect to contest.
The lesson in an Ontario teachers’ union’s request for the removal of Sir John A Macdonald’s name from schools isn’t about his legacy of racism and genocide for me.
It’s about his legacy for freedom and democracy. It’s about giving me the right to challenge other points of view, and for others to challenge mine. It is a legacy that makes Canada one of the freest countries in the world, and a legacy I will vigorously defend. He deserves to be on our schools, and students deserve to hear his full story.
This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing. Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!
There are literally hundreds of agencies, boards and commissions in the province of Ontario. They are the ABCs of government, but few know exactly what each of them do. They are set up for a multitude of reasons, but the most common one of these reasons is to remove politics from governance. That is, there are certain functions that governments preform that should be devoid of political meddling.
This sounds pretty good in theory, but in practice, it has actually created a governance problem. What it has tended to produce is a system where the government takes all the credit for the decisions these bodies make to the liking of the government, but accept no blame when the tables have turned.
The latest example of the ‘take all credit, but accept no blame’ Liberals comes to us via Metrolinx. As John Michael McGrath writes, Metrolinx was set up a decade ago to deal with the urban transit challenges in the GTA and Hamilton, which was being done piecemeal and haphazardly. The idea behind Metrolinx was to move political decision-making out of the transit planning and become much more purposeful and make decisions based on coordination and evidence.
Well, as we found out recently, not only is Transportation Minister, Steven Del Duca, taking credit for a new GO stop in his riding, the unelected Liberal candidate for a new Vaughan riding, Councillor Marilyn Iafrate, is taking credit for her lobbying efforts of the new Kirby GO stop. This goes against the advice that Metorlinx provided for GO station placement. That’s political maneouvering at its best. However, when I tried to get a GO train station for my riding in Cambridge, it was Metrolinx that said they didn’t have the billion dollars to do it, but let us get some buses there instead. You see how this works, right? The Liberals take all the credit for transit expansion but let Metrolinx wear all the blame when they can’t fulfill a community’s dreams.
There is an established pattern to this. Local Health Integration Networks were set up by the McGuinty Liberals to better manage health care. When hospital boards, which are usually made up with distinguished community leaders, got upset at the mandated balance budget requirements, it was the LHINs who held those accountability agreements. But when it came to new budget lines or hospital expansions, it was always a government making an announcement, or a series of announcements about the same thing. In fact, I always appreciated being copied on letters that the health minister would send to organizations in my riding that received money from the LHIN, but I only heard about the organizations that didn’t get the money when those organizations would pick up the phone to call me. The Liberals were quick to take all the credit and none of the blame here too.
Then, let’s not forget the debacle of the gas plants. The Ontario Power Authority had the responsibility for siting new gas plants to deal with the power shortfalls we were experiencing. Former Premier Dalton McGuinty said that of the 19 gas plants, they only got two wrong in explaining the fiasco away. He forgot to mention that most of the 17 he supposedly got right were in non-Liberal-held ridings. In those ridings, residents were told they couldn’t change the plants. However, in Oakville and Mississauga, right in the Liberal’s suburban fortress in the GTA, in those cases, the government decided to intervene. And they took the credit for it to the pleasure of thousands of cheering voters, while the rest of us remain stuck paying the billion dollar bill. Nothing to see here, people. Move on!
Some of you might be saying, meh, what’s the big deal? Yes, this is politics, but the whole point of putting up these ABCs is to ultimately make better use of limited resources, to build things that need building based on evidence and not politics, and make the decisions based on a fair process that is easily understood by everyone in the province.
Of course, fairness is not what happens, and the winners praise the government while the losers in the system have nobody to blame except the nameless, faceless people that work in these far away ABCs. Those that have lost feel hopeless that nothing can change for them and either continue to lobby in futility or become apathetic. Both of these outcomes challenge our democracy in unique ways, but we seem stuck in this rut without a way of getting out.
This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing. Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!
We are a year away from the election, and by most metrics, Patrick Brown is poised to become Ontario’s 26th Premier. For one, the polls show he still has a commanding lead. He’s amassed significant by-election wins in places that haven’t elected a Tory in years. The party has out-fundraised the Liberals and the New Democrats, and Brown largely erased the party’s debt by doing endless events before the end of last year. At conventions, there is a new enthusiasm and a multi-ethnic demographic that is now deeply embedded with the Ontario Tories. Brown himself has nudged toward the centre to appeal to a broad cross section of voters. On these metrics, Brown has positioned the party to a better place than it has been in years.
But that’s not the entire picture. You see, we can’t possibly have a runaway election a year away from it. Sure, Martin Regg Cohn wrote about the contrast between the PC leader and the newly minted federal Conservative leader. One, apparently, the man of conviction and steadfast values. The other lost and having not found his way. One, apparently, a conservative’s Conservative, and the other a sort of lesser conservative, as if we can definitively and conclusively come to a determination of what that means.
A former MPP once told me that the Ontario PCs were like the 12 Tribes of Israel. You’ve got the so-cons, the fiscal conservatives, the progressive conservatives, and so on. Leading this party of tribes is probably the most difficult job in politics, for if a tribe feels you’re not one of them, they pounce on you and want you to go.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly a PC lead in the polls can evaporate. Sew the seeds of discord, and an implosion occurs. Approval ratings tend to tank when your own party’s supporters aren’t standing behind the leader. This is Premier Wynne’s problem right now. Supporters of her party haven’t figured out whether she’s got the stuff to lead and win. And, with time, if Brown doesn’t turn things around inside his own party, his approval ratings will start to tank, and with them, those impressive polling numbers.
This isn’t just a media conspiracy to rig the election to a closer contest. Before Cohn’s article was published, I received an E-Mail from a Paul and Deb. In their words, they are “salt of the earth parents” who love Andrew Scheer, the new federal Conservative leader, and think we have a problem with Patrick. But more tellingly, they write “many of us [read members of the tribe] are committed to working extremely diligently to encourage others to reject the Ontario PCs until we see real and sustained change within the party, change which reflects the time-tested values of decent moms and dads, rather than those of a few elites who are endeavouring to bring about radical social change which serves no one well.” You see, some people’s conservatism is just more righteous than the rest.
Then, I get an e-mail from the purportedly “Concerned PC grassroots activists for a better Ontario” who speak about the PC Leader’s inner circle in not so pleasant terms. They said, “If we don’t act now, we risk these thugs further alienating our members as well as Ontarians thinking of voting for our party; we risk allowing Wynne’s Liberals to win again and further damage our great Province.” Thugs? Luca Brasi of The Godfather would be proud. The grassroots tribe has spoken and they want action. Funny how they’re concerned about Wynne’s Liberals winning again and take the time to write an e-mail undermining the guy best positioned to deliver a defeat to her team.
Here’s the thing Brown and company need to do. First, keep the focus on the government and premier, and remind the Tribes that they are worse off with the Liberals in charge. You do this by vigorously opposing the Liberal agenda. Two, don’t’ give the Tribes reasons to rebel, because they will if given a reason. Policies and decisions that will inflame tensions should be avoided, and supporters do have legitimate concerns in this regard. Policies and decisions that address and correct Liberal shortcomings are all that should be discussed. Remember, tens of thousands of Ontarians voted for the Harris governments in the mid-1990s that haven’t bothered to vote PC since. Third, Brown needs to define himself and the party before the Liberals do. Nobody pays attention to provincial politics in between elections, so this challenge is difficult to overcome. These three things, among others, are needed to avoid the PCs bleeding off more of their tribal support to deliver Wynne another victory.
It’s worth reminding PCs that a perfect leader does not exist. While my conservatism hasn’t always been articulated by the new PCs under Patrick Brown, I sure as heck prefer a half a loaf than no loaf at all. And believe me when I say the path that Patrick has taken – one that was hard right during the leadership race and then pivoting to the centre for the general election – is a tried, tested, and true strategy for almost every successful Conservative leader we have ever seen. It wouldn’t be my strategy, but it is not “unpresidented” either.
Conservatives need to close ranks before it is too late, and that starts with the leader getting the followers on board. There isn’t time for any more fumbles. Tories shouldn’t let themselves be their own biggest threat to victory in 2018.
This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing. Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!
Budgets are typically analyzed for the policy ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts.’ However, we often take for granted the political aspects of budgeting as it, more than anything else the government does, provides us with the greatest glimpse of the political direction of the government.
This budget is interesting because it makes it clear who the Liberals hope to woo. And on that measure, what the budget makes perfectly clear is that it is women who will make or break whether the Wynne Liberals remain in government after the next election.
Ladies, the ball is entirely in your court.
Let’s take a look at the budget. There is a nice little video that you can watch, which I stumbled upon through Google and YouTube ads by the way, that outlines the great virtues of the budget. They include money for prescription medicine for kids so there isn’t a choice between medicine and other essentials. There is a $7 billion boost to health care to reduce wait times. The government wants to help with everyday costs like free tuition, affordable housing, and energy costs. Next is a new career kick start, where the video points to helping young people and recent grads get good jobs (and move out of mom’s basement). And finally, it’s a balanced budget so there is now more money for investments in education and health care.
Scroll the budget propaganda some more, and you can see, ladies, that you are squarely Wynne’s target. There is an entire budget brief that is titled “Empowering Women and Girls.” What’s in the brief? Well, there will be the first ever stand alone ministry for women, a gender wage gap strategy, help to have more women in corporate leadership, women’s economic empowerment, addressing human trafficking, an end to violence against Indigenous women, stopping sexual violence and harassment, and support for domestic violence survivors. In a nutshell, we have in our midst one of the most pro-women budgets ever. A vote against the budget is a vote against women. You see where this is going?
Taking a read at the other budget briefs, it becomes quite interesting to see how much of the language is geared toward women. The “Making Life More Affordable” brief talks about pharmacare, hydro and affordable housing, which the video also mentioned, but in addition to these it highlights pro women policies of investments in child care, cheaper public transit for grandma and grandpa (so their daughters don’t have to burden with driving them to the senior’s aquafit class), and a new caregiver tax credit (to help women care for their ailing loved ones).
It’s also important to note what is not in the budget briefs. The environment, carbon pricing and infrastructure aren’t highlighted in the budget briefs, and these used to be hallmarks of Ontario Liberal policy. Isn’t that interesting?
This budget is a full court press to maintain the support of women. The electoral calculus is that if the Liberals don’t bleed female votes to either or both of the two main opposition parties, then they have a fighting chance to holding on in 2018.
Of course, this strategy is all the more successful when the Liberals can usher in a set of policies while making the alternatives unattractive to women. Rhetorically, the PCs response to the budget focused on the predictable. By trying to demonstrate the phantom menace of a fake balanced budget, the Tories are missing the set of cohesive policies that purport to woo women who are now, more than any time in the last couple of decades, inclined to vote for them. And so, to sow the seed of discontent, imagine why the Liberals were so inclined to continuously trumpet funding for a new abortion pill for all women. See too how the Liberals are wedging women by suggesting that the NDP pharmacare plan doesn’t cover as many drugs for little boys and girls as the Liberal plan. Wedge and demonize the opponents only works when you have something better to offer. The Liberals know this best, which allows them to say they aren’t negative campaigners when they indeed are.
While we may not have access to the final results of Liberal polling on these issues, given what this budget contains and doesn’t contain – or highlights and doesn’t highlight – we can see where the polling and focus groups are guiding the government. If the opposition is seeing what I’m seeing, then they must put together a comprehensive plan to address issues important to women. Failing to do so could help the Liberals hold on to government one more time.
At some point, every day when I commute to Toronto, I think about how much productive time I lose sitting in traffic. It’s not just the loss of a half a day’s work stuck in traffic, and the non-productive time spent in my vehicle during the commute. It’s also a matter of understanding that products, as well as people, are stuck in the mess, and this all hurts the economy.
Every day, commuters are faced with the question: Do I take inadequate transit (which increases my commute time but allows me to at least respond to email) or drive in my car (which is faster and more direct, but one cannot get much work done)?
Others have undoubtedly made the calculation. They figure they are better off buying a condo in Toronto to stay at during the week, and retreat to their non-Toronto properties on weekends. There is no doubt that Toronto has a hot housing market, and this can only make a hot market hotter.
With those stratospheric housing prices in Toronto, it only pushes people further away in search of housing affordability. This pushes people to Durham, Barrie, Waterloo Region and so on. More and more GTA residents are moving away to find a property they can afford. We on the urban fringe had only heard about the ‘Toronto housing market’ until it arrived with a vengeance over the past couple years. Now bidding wars are common place in many markets outside of Toronto, and housing affordability is becoming the Ontario nightmare rather than dream.
Realtors will tell you that demand is robust and supply is weak, which creates a crazy market where prices are skyrocketing. More and more of our family budgets are being spent on financing homes rather than put into the broader economy. This spells trouble down the road for our consumer economy.
At the same time, rural areas are losing their young people and their talent. Graduates are fleeing for the areas that have jobs. Property values in rural Ontario are on the decline, schools are closing, downtowns abandoned, and communities are losing their sense of spirit. And rather than encouraging a reversal, public policy seems to encourage further urbanization.
The policy response is ‘build Ontario up,’ but that building hasn’t reduced gridlock or tamed the housing market. It also hasn’t tamed our addiction to cars, which has obvious implications for Ontario’s climate change action plan. We’re now into the third fiscal year of the ten year $31 billion plan for transit around the province. This follows more than $10 billion spent on “the Big Move” – Metrolinx’s nick name for transit investment in the GTA. Things aren’t getting better fast enough.
The other thing that comes to mind on my drive into Toronto is this question: Do all these people really need to be at their desk? Can some of these people do some or all their work at home? Reframing the question invites us to brainstorm ways to shift our behaviour away from a commuting culture to one that allows us to do more work at home. It also invites us to think about ideas where the private sector plays some role in fixing the congestion problem along with government, not in opposition to it.
Instead of funding “the Big Move,” what if we repurposed that money to fund “the Big Stay?” The twin effects of technological improvements and the fact that now three quarters of all workers are employed in the service sector make the idea of telecommuting much more practical. It’s also an employment trend.
By encouraging more employees to work from home, employers don’t need as many of those expensive office towers. A 2011 report by the Telework Research Network says that companies with 250 telecommuting employees would save about $3 million, which works out to roughly $12,000 an employee. These are some real numbers to boost economic competitiveness.
Statistics Canada reports that telecommuting is a growing phenomenon, but the growth is tepid. The data are dated, but the interesting thing to note is that the portrait of a telecommuter typically is a professional, university graduate, with men slightly more engaged in telecommuting than women. These are exactly the sort of people that make up swing voters in Ontario suburbs, and given that the objective is to have higher university degree attainment rates in the future, the number of millennials that may engage in telecommuting will likely grow as well. In addition, the explosion of technological innovation over the last decade suggests that telecommuting is getting easier. We likely now have ‘an app for that!’
At some point, one must ask why governments are stuck in their old ways of thinking rather than embracing a trend that will likely take hold anyway. Why can’t the government turn tepid growth into a viral phenomenon? For example, there could be tax incentives or grants applied to businesses who successfully get more people to work from home at least one day a week, which would take the pressure off our highways, cool the urban housing market, and keep young people in rural communities that need them. It also is environmentally responsible.
The point is to help employees achieve a better work-life balance and employers to boost their bottom line, all while reducing the pressure for governments to deal with transportation and housing challenges. Applying a bit of policy foresight can allow us to pursue ideas that embrace the future and create win-win-win scenarios for people, business, and government.