THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 1, Season 13
Sunday, September 17, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Josh Morgan, London Mayor
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Mayor
Inside Politics Panel:
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome to a brand new seasons of The West Block, but really for us, it feels more like a welcome home to you, our viewers, as we prepare to navigate the biggest stories in Canadian politics, starting with the changing of fortunes for the Liberal government and the Conservative party.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Let’s get started.
Pierre Poilievre reintroduced himself this summer with a new softer image and a focused message that he understands the economic hardship Canadians are facing. His new strategy is working, according to the polls that have him 15 points ahead.
Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, had a summer slump. A cabinet reboot, international trips, and whistle stop tours across the country didn’t slow the slide. Can his new announcements on housing change the polls and help Canadians?
It’s no secret that many Canadians are struggling when it comes to housing, and it became one of the biggest political stories of the summer. The average cost of buying a house in Canada is up 6 per cent, to almost $670 thousand and it’s at over $1 million for a home in cities like Vancouver and Toronto.
The cost of renting has soared, too, with the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment at more than $2 thousand. A new report by the CMHC says Canada needs to build 3.5 million more units on top of what’s already in the process of being built, to restore affordability in the country by 2030.
The issue has galvanized both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre into making competing housing announcements and putting pressure on cities to do more.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I want to challenge other mayors right across the country to step up with their proposals, too, so we can get building more homes, increasing supply, and lowering the prices for families.”
Pierre Poilievre, Official Opposition Leader: “I will introduce in the House of Commons, the Building Homes Not Bureaucracy Act. It will require cities permit 15 per cent more home building per year or lose federal grants.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining us now to talk about how they’re tackling the housing crisis in their respective cities is Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek and London Mayor Josh Morgan, who just received a federal government housing grant.
Thank you both so much for sitting down with us. You’re the mayors of cities on not quite opposite sides of the country but very far apart, facing in many ways similar problems, and a look for programs that cities across the country are.
Josh, I want to start with you because you signed a deal with the federal government earlier this week to get some money for housing. I know a lot of mayors are curious how you did that, so can you tell us a bit about what you’re receiving, what kind of a difference will it make, and how did you manage to actually get this money?
Josh Morgan, London Mayor: Yeah. So we worked very closely with our staff, CMHC and the minister throughout the process to ensure that we could get our application in early and quick because with the urgency in our city, like many cities across the country, we need the money as soon as possible and we need to get it in the ground and creating housing units. There’s no time for delay here. So the $74 million that the federal government is giving us under the Housing Accelerator Fund will really allow us to take things to the next level. So whereas we were going to create about 9,400 units over the next three years, we’re now going to create about 11,600 units, which is a net increase of about 2,200 units for us, which is about 23 per cent more than we otherwise would have done.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jyoti, are you hoping that Calgary could see similar access to that federal government program?
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Mayor: Yeah. I’m very hopeful. We have created a really strong application. Unfortunately, I can’t give out the details yet because it hasn’t been signed officially, so it’s confidential. But I can tell you, it’ll make a big impact on the lives of many Calgarians who are either about to fall into a position of homelessness or have been trying to find a home for quite some time. We have 240 families right now that do not have a home in our city and we need to take action quickly.
Mercedes Stephenson: What has caused the crisis from both of your perspectives, and Josh we’ll start with you. In your respective cities, why is it so bad? Why is this happening now, the way that it is?
Josh Morgan, London Mayor: Yeah. So for us, a number of years ago, five or six years ago, we started to see an influx of people out of the GTA, a higher cost jurisdiction, down the 400 series highways and into the London area. That started to put a lot of pressure on housing supply, and there were a lot of competitive bidding on housing. It also started to drive up rental rates. As things continued to become more expensive in those jurisdictions, more and more people came to London and we became one of the fastest growing jurisdictions in all of Ontario so that really put tremendous pressure. I mean, we have also had great success in job creation in this area. Everybody knows about the Volkswagen announcement down in St. Thomas, but also Maple Leaf Foods and others have all been coming to the London area. So, you know, our own success on the job creation side of things, as well as people exiting higher cost jurisdictions has really driven a lot of people to the City of London. And of course, we have two major educational institutions, too, and so the influx of graduate students into the country as well also puts upward pressure on the rental market in London.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jyoti, what’s your experience been in Calgary with the root causes of this?
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Mayor: It’s somewhat similar to what Mayor Morgan has described. We’ve seen a lot of immigration, either from other places in Canada or international migration. We’ve got a really strong economy again and we are garnering a lot of attention in the tech sector, so we’re seeing a lot of talent coming here. At the same time, we have international students who are coming and quite frankly, people who are escaping war zones. So we’ve got people from Ukraine that are coming here, it’s really sort of the perfect storm. We started to see people in positions of vulnerability when it came to housing, especially glaringly during COVID. And since then, we’ve been taking in a lot more people, over 60 individuals a day if you break down the math, and we just can’t keep pace. So it’s really come to this critical point.
Mercedes Stephenson: Federal politicians have kind of taken the brunt of the criticism on this just because they’re so visible, and right now, frankly, they’re so polarising in Canada. People have very strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum. But critics say, look, cities are responsible for a lot of this because it’s cities, ultimately, that decide on things like zoning, and applications for multiple dwelling residences being in a single location. It’s NIMBYism, the not in my backyard. People don’t want to live in a suburban neighbourhood that has large apartment rentals, even though that’s required. Do you believe that cities bear some of the responsibility for failing to act sooner and kind of force this to go through? Josh?
Josh Morgan, London Mayor: You know, in London at the municipal level, we’ve been doing record level of building permits for multiple years in a row. We know that this has been a hot economy, but quite frankly, demand has been grossly outpacing supply in our city, which is why, through that shared accountability and that shared partnership, all levels of government and all partners in the housing continuum, need to pull in the same direction so that we can get units in the ground quickly. There are things that absolutely municipal governments are responsible for and can do in this battle and we are taking those actions. But there are areas where the federal-provincial and building sector and not-for-profit sector also need to be making moves as well. At the end of the day, municipalities produce permits and permissions. We don’t actually build the housing.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jyoti, do you think that it’s time to have cities stop dragging their feet on this rezoning and allow more developments like multi-dwelling residences?
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Mayor: I mean, I think one of the biggest things we can do is understand that every neighbourhood could be stronger if there was a mix of housing type, because then you have lots of different people who are able to enjoy that community, and you have a lot more eyes on the street. It becomes a better, safer, more inclusive environment. And I think we have been slow to make that change happen, and I’m really hopeful that after listening to 160 plus Calgarians who are talking about their desperate situations of housing, that council will move forward in ensuring that we have basic housing mix in all of the communities in our city.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do either of you feel that one federal party offers better solutions than the other? I know the Liberals have made announcements over the past week and the Conservatives released their plan. Josh?
Josh Morgan, London Mayor: The idea of blaming one level of government or another does not get more units in the ground quicker. What gets more units in the ground quicker is collaborating, talking, designing programs at all levels of government that actually cause us to work together and create the conditions for putting many units in the ground, and not just general units, but the kinds of housing we need. We know it’s not just sheer supply volume, but also we need affordability within our cities as well, so well-designed, good collaborative programs by working through and talking to all of the partners along the housing continuum is actually the key to success.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jyoti?
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Mayor: I would say that the mayors from across Canada have been very vocal about needing our voices heard. We represent people that we see every day. And so I think it’s been incredibly important for the big city mayors’ caucus as part of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to have direct exchange with anyone who’s a representative at the federal level. And it’s through that kind of dialogue and absolutely insisting that we have a seat at the table as we have these conversations. There is too much at stake for us to worry about partisanship and which order should be doing what. All of us have to sit together and hammer this out together.
Mercedes Stephenson: Just before we go, one question for each of you, and it’s the same one. Could you each describe, briefly, what the situation is like for housing in your city right now? Starting with you, Josh.
Josh Morgan, London Mayor: The housing situation is very desperate, and I think about those who are unhoused. At the start of the pandemic, we had about 300 people on our streets who were unhoused and now we have 2 thousand. You know, housing could not be a more critical issue in our city. Homelessness is incredibly linked with housing, and there are many other issues there. But if we are not able to build units, if we’re not able to bring affordability to our city, more people will fall into the trap of homelessness and that is tragic in a country that is advanced, and wealthy, and generous as Canada. So this is absolutely something we cannot fail on, and the situation is critical in our city.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jyoti?
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Mayor: I mentioned the number of 245 families in need of housing and there are only three placements available to them. The most recent statistics that we’ve seen coming out of the School of Public Policy, there are 100 thousand Calgarians, right now today, that are either in situations of homelessness already or they are going to fall into that situation.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you both for joining us, and best of luck achieving those goals. I know there are a lot of people in need.
Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Mayor: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next …
Pierre Poilievre, Official Opposition Leader: “After eight years of Justin Trudeau, nine in 10 young people say they will never be able to afford a home.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Expect to hear a lot about housing and affordability when MPs are back in Ottawa, tomorrow.
Our Inside Politics Panel is next, with the political pressure to build homes.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I’m pleased to announce that we are going to be removing the federal GST for the construction of new apartment buildings, and I’m encouraging all provinces to do the same.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. This summer, Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet, promised new action on housing and the cost of living, but his party still plummeted in the polls.
Pierre Poilievre put some puzzle pieces together in a multi-million dollar ad campaign, dropped his glasses and travelled the country from coast to coast. He’s now surging in the polls. With an election still potentially a couple of years out, can Poilievre hold onto his gains and continue to increase them? And can the Liberals climb back? Our Inside Politics Panel joins me for more on this, the day before the House resumes. The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief Bob Fife is here, and The Toronto Star’s Stephanie Levitz. Great to see you both again. Welcome back.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Thanks.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well, it has been anything but a boring political summer and a lot of changes since we last spoke. Bob, one of the big discussions that’s being had is Justin Trudeau’s drop in the polls. People say he’s scrambling, that he’s spiralling, that the party is going downhill. They’re questioning whether he can hold on as prime minister, even. What are your thoughts?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well I think people in the Liberal caucus are asking the same question: Is the guy we want to lead us into the next election campaign? You’ve got a government that’s been in power for over eight years. The economy is now in not great shape. People are fed up with the leader and they’re looking for alternatives. It’s not that Pierre Poilievre is some great person that people can see as oh, he’s the salvation. But the Tories have been effective and smart in realizing that they also have to change the image of Mr. Poilievre. Not the one that you and I know around Parliament Hill, which most people don’t really pay that much attention to, but by those significant ad buys that they did, $3 million over the summer, where they brought his wife in. They humanized him to show him that he is an effective communicator, and people have taken another look at Poilievre and saying, you know what? I’m really tired of Trudeau, so you know what? I think I kinda like what Poilievre is saying. So that is going to be a very, very big concern for the Liberals, and you know, I think in February, Trudeau might want to do what his dad did: take a walk in the snow.
Mercedes Stephenson: Wow, a walk in the snow. That’s certainly something he’s having to, potentially, seriously question at this point. And Pierre Poilievre, I imagine, couldn’t be happier with how he’s doing right now. And Steph, we’ve talked about how he’s really good at getting granular on the issues and explaining them in a way that catches Canadians, in the same way that Justin Trudeau, for example, is charismatic. These politicians have their rhetorical strengths. How much of a change over the summer do you think is because of Pierre Poilievre softening his image? Whether it was losing the glasses or introducing his wife and children, the t-shirts instead of a tie, and a less aggressive tone, and how much of that is just that Canadians are fed up with the Liberals after eight years and what they feel is more of the same?
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: So I mean, what to us looks like softening an image is for, I think, the vast majority of Canadians the first time they’ve ever laid eyes on Pierre Poilievre. We see a contrast. We see a change. But for Canadians who have not been tuning into politics whatsoever, and now they’re presented with these ad buys, and again, the ads were not—I mean, yes they got a lot of earned media as it’s called, right? But these ads were highly targeted. They were going after specific demographics. They were focused grouped so that the Conservatives could say okay, what would resonate with this pool of voters that we need? We need the 18-24 year-old voters. We need women in the suburbs. We need all sorts of things. And so the image that they put together of Mr. Poilievre, the sort of hipster sophistication, shall we call it? You know, that it—about not just his messaging, but his own personal back story, the soft music. The sort of analogies with puzzles, him and his kids, that’s all designed to portray a sort of compassionate conservatism to the blocks of people that have never heard of him and are not paying attention. But what’s interesting about the numbers, Mercedes, for Pierre, is that the voter cohort right now that dislikes him the most are folks over the age of 60. Why does that matter? They vote. They vote in elections. Their voter turnout is the thing that can swing the polls. Justin Trudeau won in 2015 on the backs of young voters because he had specific promises targeted to them. Most notably people say the decriminalization of marijuana. That’s what drove people to the polls. Poilievre is trying for a similar repeat, this time on the area of housing. The question becomes whether young people are so frustrated with their inability to get into the housing market, high interest rates. This idea that it’s almost a Canadian rip-off of the American dream: the white picket fence, all of that stuff. Can Poilievre deliver that to them? I don’t know that that’s going to work longer term because it’s two years down the line. He’s got this big new suite of housing ideas he’s going to put forward in the House of Commons this week. It marks the first time he’s actually fleshed out anything in his policy agenda, so we’ll see what he’s made of when his ideas start getting challenged a bit more, or if it, again, as Bob said and as you’ve noted, people are just so tired of the status quo that they’re willing to look anywhere for another option.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: And they’ve also got to work on women. Women is a big problem for Mr. Poilievre, and we’ll see further polling whether those ad buys have changed women’s opinion of him because he hasn’t been the angry, bitter partisan Poilievre that we know from Parliament Hill.
Mercedes Stephenson: The attack dog.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: And women don’t like that. And so that young—those couples with children in that 25 to 45 age group, is crucial for them. They are working very hard on that, but they also understand that they’ve got to turn the women’s vote. And so this is all like—this is all really smart politics on Mr. Poilievre’s part, but the issue really comes down to this: If Canadians are fed up with Justin Trudeau, that’s it. Game over. And the Liberal Party then has to think about okay, we’ve got—we need a new leader because they may not be so dissatisfied with the Liberal government policies overall, they’re just fed up with Justin Trudeau.
Mercedes Stephenson: Why is it, do you think, Stephanie that they haven’t been able to come up with new ideas? I mean, Justin Trudeau’s whole brand is difficult eight years in if you’re thing is I’m a disruptor. I have new ideas, and then you seem to stop having them. But they had three events this summer where they had an opportunity to try to change things. They had the cabinet shuffle, which was significant. They had the caucus retreat, and they had the cabinet retreat. And we had some announcements come out of the caucus retreat, but a lot of it was recycled ideas either from the NDP when it came to hauling in grocery magnet CEOs to get on their case about how much profit they’re making and threaten them, or whether it was about housing promises they previously made and were just starting to enact. Why can’t they seem to find purchase with new ideas and a new vision?
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: It seems to be in leading into the cabinet shuffle, definitely the messaging that was coming out of the PMO was that well we don’t have a problem. People just don’t understand how great we are. We need to talk more. We need to communicate better. You know, and someone much smarter than me observed that there was this weird thing with the cabinet retreat in particular that there was no news coming out of the cabinet retreat. You have this housing crisis. You have Pierre Poilievre beating you over the head every day. You have nothing, and lo, we get these ideas coming out of the caucus retreat. Why is that? They needed a week to come up with a comms plan. These are guys that are always struggling to figure out how to communicate their message. They—the question becomes: Do they—a report asked, I should say the question becomes: The question was asked to Justin Trudeau: Do you bear any responsibility for this? Do you think you ought to have acted sooner to address this problem? And he blew it off. And he blamed to the Harper government. You know?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: That’s getting very tired.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: And that’s getting very tired, right? That’s not leadership. Leadership is being able to step up and say yes, you know what? This got out ahead of us. We—you know, find a way to say to Canadians, acknowledging that if we didn’t—you don’t want to necessarily say oh, I screwed up, but you can say yeah, this is a priority. It’s clear that, you know, we should have taken some action faster, but don’t worry, we are now and here is what we’re doing.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Yeah, you know, just that whole issue of the groceries, which is a BS argument on their behalf that we’re being gouged by the grocery stores. Bank of Canada has done two studies that blew that apart. The margins of profitability are about 3.5 per cent. The increases in grocery prices as a result of supply chain issues, as a result of big brands increasing the cost because the costs are being increased on them. It’s also a factor with climate change, as we know, that it’s had a huge effect on a lot of crops, which has forced up the prices. Those are the reasons for it. If he’s serious about really wanting to bring down grocery prices, he could do two things: supply management monopoly? Hello? Pay more money for eggs and cheese and chicken. Get rid of the supply management, which the Americans have said we should be doing for a long time ago. And what about taking off the fuel—GST fuel price on farmers so that they cannot pass on these costs to consumers? That’s really something to do, rather than saying I’m going to call the grocery store magnets to Parliament Hill and MPs are going to yell at them. I mean, it’s just—you know it’s frustrating when you see them playing that kind of a game. They’re not being honest with Canadians.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Well and also because it’s hypocritical. I mean, this is a Liberal government who has also taken great pains to argue again and again and again that they are not responsible for inflation that it’s about the war in Ukraine. It’s about climate change. It’s about post-pandemic supply change slumps. It’s about a bunch of things and completely discounting, you know, the number of people who are pointing out, well kinda your pandemic—post-pandemic spend, your pandemic spend was in fact, fuelling inflation. They won’t listen to that argument. No, no, no, you’re full of conspiracy theories. You refuse to understand the reality. They’re doing the same thing on the grocery prices but the reverse, right? They’re refusing to acknowledge that it’s a global problem. There was a reporter, you know, who pointed out to Justin Trudeau, for example, that he’s not calling to task Costco and Walmart, to, you know, multi-national big buyers who have a role to play in the product and pricing, and in fact, in this environment, more Canadians are probably shopping at Costco and at Walmart than maybe are at Loblaws. So it’s a bit of political sleight of hand. It’s great theatre, perhaps, but does it end with real price differentials for Canadians? I don’t know about that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. We’ll have to see how it all plays out this fall. I’m sure we’ll be talking about it again. Thank you to our Inside Politics Panel, and great to have you back.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thanks for having us.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Great to be here.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, one last thing. Can the Liberals put the shine back on and return to sunny ways?
Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing…
I have to wonder if the Liberals summer of discontent led the Liberal brain trust to jump the shark.
Last Friday, the prime minister triumphantly announced that his government would summon leaders of Canada’s five largest grocery store chains to come to Ottawa, and demand they come up with a plan to stabilize prices. That may sound great, but lecturing CEOs may not achieve much. Mr. Trudeau was actually mimicking Jagmeet Singh’s performance from earlier this year. Perhaps the government should focus on recycling for climate change and not recycling ideas.
In season five of happy days, as the audience started to wane, desperate for new ideas, the main character, the Fonz, jumped over a live shark on water skis. It was a stunt. So with the shark circling, will the Liberals produce a much needed new vision or more made for TV messaging? Justin Trudeau needs more announcements like the one lifting the GST for rental developers, but Canadians are growing short on patience and on funds.
Thanks for hanging out with us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and I’ll see you next week.