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National Infrastructure for All or for Toronto?

Olivia Chow – the Federal NDP transportation critic – plans to introduce a motion in parliament this Tuesday asking the government to design and implement a strategy for funding municipal infrastructure and transit systems. On the surface this proposal seems to be a good one; after all, anyone who spends any amount of time driving or taking public transit in Canada is bound to have a least one example of crumbling roads, overfilled busses leaving riders at the curb, or long commute times.  Not only does investment into infrastructure and transit seem like a ‘no-brainer’ to the average Canadian, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has also made requests to the government to increase infrastructure spending by $2.5 billion.  According to the CBC, the preliminary version of the motion reads as follows:

That this House call on the government to commit in Budget 2013 to a long-term, predictable and accountable federal infrastructure plan in partnership with other levels of government, as recommended by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, in order to: (a) improve Canada's lagging productivity; (b) shorten commute times; and (c) fix Canada's crumbling infrastructure.

...and (d) to support Canada's burgeoning road pylon industry.
You’ll get no argument from me that funding infrastructure and transit projects is a good idea and I’m sure that most municipalities would be more than happy to receive an influx of federal funds to help repair aging infrastructure and support public transit.  However, what Olivia Chow does not want you to know is that she believes the funding should come with some strings attached – well, at least she doesn’t want you to know unless you live in Toronto.

First of all, as the office of the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities point out, “Ms. Chow has voted against every federal infrastructure initiative in Canada over the last seven years.  So why the sudden change of heart?  Perhaps it may have something to do with the fact that Ms. Chow is seen by many Torontonians as a contender for the next mayoral election who could replace the controversial Rob Ford.  Make no mistake, if Ms. Chow decides to return to municipal politics she is likely to find a great deal of support in Toronto – as an immigrant, former City Councillor, three term Member of Parliament and wife of the much beloved late Jack Layton,  Ms. Chow has the knowledge, experience and likeability to run a strong  and effective campaign and do some good work for the City of Toronto. 

The City of Toronto: The Centre of the Universe if you live there; a nice place to visit on the weekend if you don't.
But what does any of this have to do with federal infrastructure spending you ask?  To answer that question I will turn to Ms. Chow’s own words.  When discussing the infrastructure funding she has openly stated her view that the funding “should be allocated by population” and when discussing repairs in her home riding in Toronto she has said that “This is Toronto.  We need a national program to make this work in Toronto.”  If federal infrastructure funding is allocated by population rather than through a project to project review, the taps to the largest cities in the country – cities like Toronto – will flow freely while small and medium municipalities who are also in dire need of funding will end up going without.  And yes, while repairs and upgrades in large cities will certainly benefit a great number of people the government has a responsibility to take care of all citizens, not just those living in large urban centres. 

This is where I take issue with Ms. Chow’s motion.  I completely support a national infrastructure plan and providing funding for municipalities to make upgrades and repairs.  I also support a plan to fund and support major infrastructure projects in large urban centres.  What I do not support is Ms. Chow’s attempt to direct funds to Toronto under the guise of a national plan.  Although on the surface she says that the funding should not discriminate against any municipality, her decision to allocate funding based on population overtly leads to that sort of discrimination.  Further, the fact that shortly after announcing her plans to make the motion Ms. Chow spoke to a Toronto audience about a Toronto-specific problem and argued that the solution is the very policy that she is putting forward betrays that there is more to Ms. Chow’s motion than she would like us to believe.  There is nothing wrong with a federal MP using their position to advocate for and provide benefits to their riding, however, it is important to separate the duties required as the official critic of a cabinet portfolio to advocate for the needs all Canadians and the responsibility as an MP to support constituents.

Opening of Canadian Parliament, 1879: Followed by the Minister of Culture's Official Arts Funding Plan by hiring "my neighbour Dave" to create official sketches.
If we return to the comment that a national program is required to make infrastructure repairs work in Toronto, we are faced with further bias on Ms. Chow’s part.  Toronto is not the only municipality in Canada, nor is it the only municipality who is unable to keep up with its infrastructure and transit needs.  There are transit systems from coast to coast who would leap at the opportunity to supplement their budget with federal funds to expand service or replace aging fleets.  There are roads departments in municipalities in every province who struggle to keep up with basic road maintenance let alone proper repairs.  A national plan should be championed with the phrase “This is Canada”, not “This is Toronto” and should recognise that the problems in each municipality may be of different sizes but are all equally important to the citizens who experience them every day.  Regardless of the population size in your hometown, a pothole is a pothole is a pothole and Ms. Chow needs to remember that when trying to use federal funds to test the waters for a mayoral campaign.

Hey guys, it turns out the water is colder than we thought!