Affordability, U.S. election to top agenda as federal cabinet meets in Montreal

Affordability, U.S. election to top agenda as federal cabinet meets in Montreal
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks past members of his cabinet after speaking to reporters during the Liberal Cabinet retreat in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Wednesday, August 23, 2023. .

Federal cabinet ministers meeting in Montreal next week to prepare for the upcoming parliamentary sitting will be told that they simply cannot be too bold when it comes to solving Canada’s housing crisis or preparing for the impact of the next U.S. election.

“There’s no going too bold, there’s no action that it is too much. Absolutely, housing is in a crisis,” said Western University economics professor and housing expert Mike Moffatt, about what he plans to tell the cabinet in a presentation on Monday.

Moffatt is one of more than half a dozen experts who will provide advice to the cabinet on cost of living, the middle class and Canada-U.S. relations during a three-day retreat that kicks off Sunday.

The meetings come one week before the House of Commons resumes sitting following the holiday break.

Ministers are also meeting amid a sluggish economy, growing global political instability and an extremely cranky Canadian electorate that has watched its spending power diminish over the last year in the face of higher interest rates, ballooning housing costs and bigger grocery bills.

And the Opposition Conservatives are eating the Liberals’ lunch in the polls, propelled by skillful political messaging from Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Bruce Anderson, a longtime Ottawa strategist and pollster who is now the chief strategy officer at Spark Advocacy, said there is no doubt the government sees the public fatigue with the prime minister and the Liberals.

He said by this time in the tenure of any government, that’s not abnormal. But this time, it comes after many years of high anxiety and fear, including around the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of global and domestic political and economic unease.

“It’s been a hard few years of finding things for people to feel optimistic or hopeful about,” Anderson said.

And he said this government, as others have before, is being out-politicked by its opponents.

“When you’re in government, you sometimes forget you’re in politics. You think that you’re in government,” he said. “The opposition doesn’t have that problem.”


But Anderson said he also thinks focusing this retreat on housing, kitchen table economics and Canada’s trading relationship with the United States is smart.

“There is a really important budget coming up,” Anderson said.

Moffatt and Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, will speak to the cabinet about housing Monday, following up on a presentation they made at the last cabinet retreat in Charlottetown in August.

At that time, the two presented a report listing 10 specific things the government could do on housing, including better co-ordination on housing policy among different levels of government, accelerating the construction of purpose-built rentals and significant investments in community and affordable housing.

Moffatt told The Canadian Press in an interview that he has seen positive moves from the government since then, but it’s just a start, and in the meantime the crisis in housing supply keeps getting worse.

Since August, the Liberals have seen major movement on their $4-billion housing accelerator fund, signing agreements with 23 different cities to flow money for housing projects in exchange for the cities cutting red tape that prevents housing builds.

That can include changes to municipal zoning bylaws that prevent multi-unit buildings in certain neighbourhoods and policies around building housing close to transit lines.

The government also passed a bill that took the federal GST and HST off construction costs for new purpose-built rentals, something Moffatt applauded as a way to incentivize more rental construction.

But he said none of that will be delivered overnight, and as the economy slows and interest rates are high, housing starts are down and the country is still seeing record population growth.

That means the number of houses Canada thought it was short in August has certainly already grown.

On Tuesday, the cabinet will hear from a panel of experts on Canada-U.S. relations ahead of a presidential election most expect to be a rematch between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal last week that another Trump presidency “won’t be easy” and that Canada is preparing for that possibility.

Laura Dawson, executive director of the Future Borders Coalition, which advocates for smoother but more secure trade across the Canada-U.S. border, said election years are always important in the relationship.

This year will be no exception, no matter who wins.

Though Dawson said that a Biden re-election could bring some level of protectionist policy in America, a Trump win would bring a lot more.

“You cannot overstate the destructive power of another Trump presidency,” Dawson told The Canadian Press.

She said Canada needs to start a new charm offensive now, getting ahead of the things it can predict will come up as Trump campaigns and possibly moves back into the Oval Office.

She said Canada’s consuls general around the U.S., along with Canadian mayors, premiers and cabinet ministers, should all be enlisted to head south, meet with U.S. lawmakers in their own backyards and launch an offensive campaign to counter misinformation about Canada’s trade policies.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2024.

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