A Tale of Two St. John’s Elections

You don’t often have two levels of government up for grabs at the same time. So it’s worth looking at issues where they overlap—like housing.

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As it turns out, two concurrent elections—federal and municipal—is a lot of politics to keep tabs on!

It might be a bit easier if either one of them was boring, predictable, or otherwise unimportant. I wrote a bit last week about the reasons why the federal election—even if unnecessary—carries fairly significant historical consequences. This is also true of the municipal elections happening now generally, and the St. John’s city election in particular.

There is a lot of overlap. We are in the process of electing a national Parliament to work out (among other things) a COVID recovery roadmap, a strategy for mitigating and navigating climate change, and measures for making everyday life more affordable. We are also in the process of electing the city councillors who will be charged with deciding what (and how) things will be “built back better,” whether or not these things are built to alleviate (or even withstand) a climate emergency, and even the basic logistics around where this stuff will be physically placed. Both are occurring at the same pivotal historical moment.

We tend to think of the three different levels of government as more or less isolated spheres of influence, but they are all cogs connected within the same big wheel. At the end of the day, it’s municipalities that have to ‘fill in the blanks’ for a lot of the big federal policy proposals. A great example of this is the national discussion around affordable housing that unfolded over the last week.

Before we go full Policy Nerd, though: let’s glance at the chessboard. Both the national and city campaigns are also characterized by interesting, and gripping, electoral races.

First, the federal election. I was wrong last week when I speculated that we wouldn’t see much from the national leaders for the remainder of the election. (This has been known to happen!) Trudeau was in Quidi Vidi this week to shore up support for Joanne Thompson in St. John’s East. Given that this seat was briefly captured from Jack Harris by Nick Whalen in 2015, it’s not surprising that they think there is potential to flip it back since Harris has resigned. We might then also expect to see Jagmeet Singh back again before the race is through to plug Mary Shortall, who is a strong contender to carry the NDP torch. As Leila Beaudoin reports for CPAC, there is a lot at stake in this riding. (It probably won’t see any national leaders in the next three weeks, but Labrador, too, might be one to watch; 338.com has it leaning Liberal. Yvonne Jone has a reasonably comfortable lead ahead of both NDP Amy Norman and CPC Shane Dumaresque, but with the latter two essentially tied—and all three within an astounding +/- 10% of one another. Depending on how the national campaigns break, right now it could be anybody’s game.)

More interesting, though, is Erin O’Toole visiting Corner Brook this week. The Conservatives took nearly 11,000 votes in Long Range Mountains in 2019 with minimal effort or resources (or even a visit from the absentee candidate!), so the Tories must figure they can make real traction in the riding. I suspect Avalon may be in their sights as well; Matthew Chapman is running for the Tories in a rematch against incumbent Liberal Ken McDonald, where the former took 12,855 votes to the latter’s 19,122 in 2019. This is not an outrageous gap to close. We’re pretty far removed from Danny Williams’ “Anything But Conservative” campaign against Stephen Harper in 2008—or, for that matter, the Liberals’ high water mark in the 2015 Red Wave.

Meanwhile, in the city of St. John’s: woof. With only a few days to go before the close of nominations on August 31, the wards are filling out with candidates—except, somewhat mysteriously, Ward 4?—and contestants continue to pile into the clown car that is the At Large field. (Though we can’t seem to get a good old-fashioned crank candidate to throw in for the mayor’s seat against Danny Breen. What is this city coming to? I’m going to have to complain to the Heritage Committee.)

We’ll have a surer sense of it by next week, but you can almost discern the contours of the “ballot question.” It feels in some respects like we are holding a referendum on the Progressive Class of 2017. And with Sheilagh O’Leary and Ian Froude (architect of campaign finance reform) heading for acclamation, Dave Lane absconding to Torbay, and Hope Jamieson ascending to non-profit work (plus punditry), it feels like a referendum on Maggie Burton. Or, I should clarify: “Maggie Burton,” less the person than the idea. 

As the (perceived) figurehead of ‘progressive’ politics in the city, Burton—as an insurgent in 2017—served as a kind of projector screen for everyone’s (ultimately incommensurate) hopes and dreams for a transformational approach to city council. (That’s not quite what we got, in part because the ‘progressive wave’ of 2017 was more of a ‘wedge’. You need a bloc of 6+ councillors to effectively control the city legislature, which is an astonishingly difficult project without a system of party discipline—something touched on, in a roundabout way, by Jack Lucas’ recent paper on “The Ideological Structure of Municipal Non-Ideology” in Urban Affairs Review.)

Anyways: flash forward four years, and things are very different. It’s not 2017 anymore and our progressive insurgent has become an incumbent. Opposition is easy and government is hard. As the vanguard of a small progressive beachhead on city council, Burton has to wear it all. As a highly-visible At Large councillor and a ‘change’ candidate who failed to solve all institutional problems immediately and forever, she has to bear everyone’s (often extraneous) grievances with “City Hall.” As a highly-visible leftish woman in the age of the Culture Wars, she is the target for resentment from people who feel things like renaming Discovery Day (est. 1997) means punching their Nan in the face. There is also the perennial “no new taxes” pearl-clutching and the fact that large swathes of people outside downtown viscerally hate anything and anybody who seems too “downtown.” Throw in some ultraleft (and faux-left) posturing, bog standard NIMBYism, the anti-bicycle lobby, and varying degrees of unreconstructed misogyny, and you can appreciate the impressive array of enemies Burton amassed in a single term. (Or, as my friend Simon Pope distilled the anti-Burton coalition more eloquently: “we’ve got a) cranks, b) concern trolls, and c) sprawl reactionaries.”)

So, aside from deciding the fate of Cllr Burton herself, St. John’s is gearing up to determine whether it is going to build on the small progressive beachhead established in 2017—or push it back into the sea. The mood of the city is inscrutable; only time will tell. (Fortunately, in this case, less than a month.)

Anyways—it will be easier to think through the gameplay once all the pieces are on the board. In the meantime: let’s revisit the housing question, because it’s where we can tie both federal and municipal elections together in a nice big bow.

It’s no secret that Canada is in the midst of a housing crisis. Residential real estate prices in major cities across the country have been overheating for years. Prices are freezing new homebuyers out of the market, and renters are feeling the squeeze. Housing affordability ranks as one of the top issues among voters. So what are the major federal parties proposing to do about it?

Justin Ling in Maclean’s provides a pretty good overview of the Liberal, Conservative, and NDP housing platforms. (Spoiler alert: “the NDP plan is pitching the level of investment necessary to address the crisis.”)

While tackling housing demand is important (and also where most federal proposals fall flat), we’re going to focus on the question of housing supply. To a greater or lesser degree, all three parties appreciate that making housing more affordable involves, primarily, increasing the amount of available housing. (But not too much, since making housing too accessible would risk lowering real estate prices, and inflated real estate prices are the financial house of cards upon which the Canadian economy is precariously perched.)

With an emphasis on not only building new homes but ‘preserving and repairing’ existing homes, Ling writes that “a charitable read of the Liberals’ plan suggests that [their] new measures would add 150,000 new homes to the market in the next five years.” (Since they have been in government since 2015, we can also check up on the progress of Liberal affordable housing initiatives in this 2021 report from the Parliamentary Budget Office.) The NDP, meanwhile, are promising 500,000 new affordable housing units over the next decade, with 250,000 coming in the first five years. This would also include “fast-start funds” that help communities start their own housing projects, as well as waiving the federal 5% sales tax on the construction of “affordable rental units.” As for the Conservatives, they are promising a million new homes in Canada over the next three years (!) through a variety of measures—most intriguingly, by tying funding for housing to increased density and public transit capacity. As Ling puts it, “it will depend on how it is actually implemented (building transit to far-flung suburbs is a waste of money) [but] it has the potential to make much better use of land in major cities that is, currently, zoned for single-family and semi-detached homes.”

The supply side of the housing question slots nicely into the issues facing our aspiring city councillors. It’s one thing for federal parties to throw out targets for new housing supply—but it is the municipalities that will ultimately determine what kind of houses get built where, and how (or if) they are serviced by public transit. So what are St. John’s city council candidates saying about housing?

Exploring this has been interesting. From the material available—campaign websites, more or less—the issue features more prominently for some candidates than others. Across the wards, only four candidates specifically highlighted housing, even in passing, as a policy interest on their websites. Jill Bruce in Ward 1 mentions ‘raising awareness… about safe, adequate, and affordable housing,” while Ian Froude in Ward 4 talks about “diversifying housing availability,” and Walter Harding in Ward 3 proposes “ensuring affordable housing units go to those who need them.” (Which, at face value, seems less like concern about increasing supply than regulating distribution.) Ophelia Ravencroft in Ward 2 had far and away the most detailed policy proposals around housing, which include suggestions for facilitating “roommate”-model accommodations for matching multiple single people to multi-room rental vacancies, “collaborat[ing] with the private sector to encourage the development of affordable housing units,” and “promot[ing]… infill development that provides either affordable housing or essential services without removing greenspace.” (RIP Grace Hospital?)

Among At Large candidates, Anne Malone proposes “increas[ing] the availability of affordable, accessible housing in areas that are adjacent and connected to the economic, social, and other resources that they require,” while Meghan Hollett “support[s] more affordable and secure housing.” Maggie Burton doesn’t have much in the way of a detailed platform on her website, but (besides a voting record) she has blogged about how she approaches development decisions—including “If Not This, Than What?” from June 2020 weighing out how she thinks about proposals like housing (or hotel) developments. Similarly, Jess Puddister’s platform is long on its sweeping vision—the harmonious synthesis of all environmental, economic, and existential data from the human condition to construct the ultimate municipal planning System! Total Education! Grid Truth!—but surprisingly short on specifics. She did spend six months covering city council for The Indy, though, so we have a few clues about where she might fall on various housing policy questions. Her assessment of residential zoning disputes at this meeting from April 19, 2021 is instructive (“I can’t even begin to imagine the terror [Shaw Street residents] experience when faced with the possible construction of one duplex, and the horrible people who only live in duplexes”), as is its featured quote from Cllr Burton: “Exclusionary zoning (perpetuating low-density, single-family homes) pushes multi-family & more affordable housing to the outskirts of town. It’s bad social policy & climate policy.”

That’s the lay of the land from the easily-accessible material. Our municipal election correspondent Elizabeth Whitten is out in the field pinning down candidates on specific issues, so we’ll soon have a fuller picture for you about where everyone stands on the housing question—as well as a host of other hot topics.

But the key point is this: the scope of jurisdiction is different, but the representatives we’re sending to the House of Commons and the New Gower Street Bunker will both be charged with tackling many of the same issues. It’s good to know which federal parties—and which municipal candidates—are giving serious thought to what they can specifically do to make your life easier, and how it would actually work. The next four years will be critical to how we emerge from the pandemic and navigate some pretty fundamental questions about how we’re living here together. You’re not often asked to reconfigure two levels of government at the same time—so it’s worth making sure you’re slotting sturdy cogs into all the right places.

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