Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The "New Deal" Goes National

For the past couple of years, there has been a growing list of individuals and organizations campaigning for a "new deal for cities" from the federal and provincial governments. It started (to the best of my knowledge, anyways) in Toronto, spearheaded in part by the Toronto Star and adopted urban guru (I believe that is now her official title, on all her stationery) Jane Jacobs. Since then, the movement has grown, with more voices added from all sides of the political spectrum, and with other municipalities picking up the theme (Winnipeg's mayor, Glen Murray, is a notable and oft-cited example). There have even been signs lately that the message has filtered through to Ottawa and Queen's Park, with Dalton McGuinty being elected in part thanks to his "choose change" mantra being applied to municipal issues, and with Paul Martin taking up the "new deal for cities" phrase (including, in his coronation speech).

This month, there is evidence that the urban issues file has finally made its way onto the national radar screen. Two weeks ago, Maclean's published a cover story on cities; it published five different covers, one for each of five different areas of the country, with the mayor of the major city in that area featured on the cover (e.g., Toronto's David Miller, Montréal's Gérald Tremblay). And last night, a major Brian Stewart documentary was featured on the National, CBC's major evening news program. It was done well, featured a number of urban players from within the political arena (e.g., Miller, Murray) and from outside (e.g., Jacobs, Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume), and raised a number of questions.

Most significant of those questions, I think, is the issue of how this issue will play out in Canada's rural areas. Typically Canadian municipalities generate significantly more tax revenues than they receive from senior levels of government, particularly the feds; when that money is redistributed, it often tends to favour more rural areas and issues. How does it look when big, gleaming, everyone-loves-to-hate Toronto comes begging for money to fix and expand a transit system that, thanks to wallpaper and bandages, appears to work fine, while (for example) in rural Newfoundland, there's major unemployment no thanks to the moratorium on cod fishing.

The interviews in the documentary noted that it's not just about getting more taxes back from Ottawa: it's about autonomy and control of municipalities over their own operation and development, and the ability to find new sources of revenue (e.g., a hotel tax for Toronto). However, the press conference that followed the recent mayors' summit (C10 summit? M10 summit?) didn't help the perception; critics must have laughed when Miller rhymed off a wish list (full municipal exemption from the GST; acceleration of $2B in infrastructure investment, to be paid now; five cents of the gas tax; and a dedicated share of sales or income taxes) and said, "We're not asking for the world." After all, it's hard to hear about $2 billion here, $2.5 billion there, and not think of it as a very significant amount of money. (Divide it betwen all Canadian municipalities, though, and it begins to sound more realistic.)

I'm starting to ramble a bit, so I'll wrap it up. It's nice to see urban issues make mainstream, national press; it'll be interesting to see what comments are written in to the National tonight (both for and against).

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