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Promise made. Promise betrayed.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

Hearing Paul Martin play call and response with Liberal convention delegates last weekend was absolutely precious. One after another, he rhymed off promises that he claimed his government had kept.

Of course, Martin conveniently neglected to mention the fact that many of the election promises that his government had kept were actually made, not by the Liberals, but by the Conservatives (you know, the “dark forces” from which voting Liberal was supposed to protect us). This includes massive cuts to corporate tax rates that (thanks to Martin) were already too low – something that the Liberals explicitly said that they wouldn’t do.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that the Martinites seem to have completely forgotten their election promise to spend $1.5 billion on building new affordable housing (which, spread over five years, is far short of the $2 billion a year that would be needed to meet the need for new affordable housing). That promise was made after NDP leader Jack Layton made headlines for the audacity to point out that the lack of a federal affordable housing strategy had real consequences.

When Ralph Goodale presented the government’s 2005 budget on February 23, you would have been excused if you had missed the two passing references to housing. He indicated that “The same [that the government plans to renew them] is true for our housing initiatives.” He also alluded to the government’s plan to “make immediate investments… better housing” in Aboriginal communities. That’s it. The weighty technical document that accompanied the budget has no reference at all to any plans to spend $1.5 billion over five years for new social housing. No wonder Stephen Harper liked the budget so much.

Here’s what Paul Martin said about social housing a year to the day before his government’s budget ignored the pressing need for new money for housing:

You’re going to have national objectives. You can’t have national objectives unless our cities and the provinces are onside for those national objectives. So we’re asked to accomplish what we want to do. In terms of social housing, as an example, we have to work together. And yes I did say that I believe that social housing, I think, you know a society that can’t nourish itself, that can’t clothe itself and that can’t, and that can’t house itself is a society that is just simply dysfunctional. And we’ve got to work on that. And, and that’s what, that is a major goal for us as national government, as it is, I believe, for both the provinces and the major cities. And that’s one of the reasons why this meeting was so important. So yes I did make that commitment.

Martin should have little difficulty in keeping this promise. Way back in 1990, he and fellow Liberal MP Joe Fontana (now Martin’s Minister of Housing) penned a report called “Finding Room: Housing Solutions for the Future”, which called on the federal government to take leadership in the provision of funding for affordable housing. At the time, the dynamic duo wrote that “The Task Force believes that housing is a fundamental human right: all Canadians have the right to decent housing.” If Martin and Fontana still believe that – indeed, if they ever truly believed that – they’re certainly doing an outstanding job of disguising that belief behind a strategy of empty promises and inaction.

“The budget talks about delivering on commitments,” said Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada President René Daoust, “but where is the $1.5 billion promised in the last election for affordable housing?... The government has recognized that 1.7 million people don’t have adequate shelter and yet they’re not planning on doing anything about it. We were pleased to be involved in Housing Minister Joe Fontana’s national consultations, aimed at creating a framework for addressing housing and homelessness problems in Canada. We need additional rent supplements to make existing co-ops more affordable. And we need more affordable housing. The budget talks about investing in people – children and their families, in seniors, in disabled people. But how will this help these people if they don’t have homes. These are the very people we’re trying to help. But we can’t do it without money.”

The affordability problems faced by existing housing co-ops stem from a technical glitch in a program that built social housing back in the 1980s. When mortgage rates started falling dramatically in the late 1990s, co-ops renewing their mortgages found that the money they used to subsidize the rents of their poorest members was cut dramatically. Instead of saying, “Whoops! Our bad” and fixing the unforeseen problem with more dollars, the federal government has happily pocketed the windfall. The effect of this strategy has meant that, in addition to not building any of the new affordable housing units promised, this government has actually overseen the net loss of thousands upon thousands of subsidized housing units. That hardly counts as a promise kept.

Still, in response to a post-budget question from Bloc Quebecois MP Christian Simard, Fontana claimed that “no other government in the history of this country has done more for housing than this one.” Hansard doesn’t record whether he managed to maintain a straight face while saying that.


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