REAL TIME Episode 19: Chantal Hébert – In Pursuit of Housing:…
Erin Davis: Welcome to REAL TIME, the podcast for and about REALTORS® brought to you by the Canadian Real Estate Association. I’m Erin Davis. CREA and the REALTOR® community have advocated for home buyers, property owners, and communities for more than three decades. Of course, that means we’ve been keeping a close eye on the lead up to and results of Canada’s 44th federal election.
On this episode 19 of REAL TIME, we’re joined by one of Canada’s most prolific political journalists and commentators, Chantal Hébert. Join us as we unpack the election’s political implications for Canada’s housing crisis including the newly elected government’s housing promises and how all parties might align to support a more accessible and sustainable housing sector.
Well, Chantal, despite a hotly contested campaign, our new parliament looks a lot like it did before the election. If you could, can we take a closer look at how we got here? We’ll go back to August 15th. I know back in the way-back machine to an entire month and a half ago but why do you think it is that the Prime Minister decided to call a snap election at that moment?
Chantal Hébert: Easy. Minority governments, 18 to 24 months is the usual shelf life. The liberals have been leading, solidly leading in the polls for months. It is in the nature of minority governments to always be on the lookout for a window for reelection. Here are the calendar options that Mr. Trudeau was looking at. If he didn’t go on August 15, then he wasn’t going to go in the fall of 2021 because as of right now, there are significant municipal election campaigns that are getting underway not only in Quebec but also in Alberta. You really want to not be– Those signs in Montreal went up for the mayoral battle a day before the end of the federal election. It was jarring to see suddenly new faces appear on top of all the other faces.
Erin: Oh, wow.
Chantal: That took care of the fall. Then you go to the spring of 2022, and here again, no window. Why? Ontario is going to the polls in June as a fixed-state election. There is no doubt about Ontario having a campaign. That pretty much means that as of February, March, every party in Ontario is going to be concerned with reelection or beating Premier Doug Ford. That means a lot of campaign workers who would normally work for the federal Liberals, Conservatives, NDP would be fixated on the provincial scene.
Oh, well. Let’s move fast forward to the end of the summer of 2022. Here’s Mr. Trudeau thinking, “I really want to have some control over my timing,” whoops, except that there’s a Quebec election. It’s a fixed-date election, so it is going to happen. As of the beginning of next summer, right after Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day that Tuesday, most political volunteers are going to be working or lining up to work for Premier Legault or for one of the other contenders in the Quebec election. Here we are, November 2022. Taking all that into account and having no way to predict the future, who knows if you’re still going to have that nice big fat lead in November 2022? Are you going to call a Christmas election seriously?
On balance, I’m guessing that the Prime Minister decided, “I have the lead, I can get this over with and buy myself time, will a majority, which would be nice because the pandemic is not over but will come to an end. By the time it comes to an end, 2023, ’24, we are going to all be taking a more serious look at our fiscal situation and the fiscal damage. It may not be a great, great time to have to campaign for reelection, so let’s do it now when a majority mandate that in theory, would take the government all the way to 2025.”
Erin: Do you think that the Prime Minister could have done a better job in getting out the message of why the timing so that people didn’t react with so much displeasure, which seemed to be the overriding emotion that we felt over the past several weeks, Chantal?
Chantal: Couple of points on that. There was never a narrative that really worked for Justin Trudeau to call an election in part because of the pandemic. What has been happening over the past year and a half, two years since the 2019 election is that there has been a fairly high degree of cooperation between the opposition parties and not just on Parliament Hill, in most provincial legislatures for obvious reasons.
On top of that, most of Justin Trudeau’s big projects, childcare, climate change, indigenous reconciliation, he had the dancing partner for all of them on the opposition benches. Mr. Trudeau had a very comfortable minority government going into this election where no one could argue that he could not get his plans in progress. He couldn’t go to voters and say, “I need to have two hands on the wheel because I can’t get the country to anything,” because he could not sustain the narrative.
The other issue, the people’s reaction. It is true that normally, people, when they see an election called Justin Trudeau’s not the first Prime Minister in a minority situation to have tried to find his way to a majority. BC did it earlier on in the pandemic. New Brunswick did the same thing earlier on in the pandemic. Both of those governments won majority governments. People weren’t all that annoyed, but I think over time, the Prime Minister and possibly, the people who advise him got themselves into an even thicker bubble than usual because of the pandemic. Their read on the public mood was probably increasingly based on polls rather than on speaking to people.
If they have, you guys speak to people, you meet them. You would’ve known that the mood out there wasn’t a, “Yes, let’s have an election. I can’t wait to give Justin Trudeau a prize for having handled the pandemic.” It was a, “Please leave me alone and let us get on with finishing the pandemic.” I think it was a combination of both Trudeau wanting a majority and thinking he could get it and having be a failed connection to the public mood.
Erin: I found it interesting in his acceptance speech that he mentioned that Canadians have made it clear that they’re tired of the pandemic and they’re tired of elections. That was a very Canadian moment like apologizing for victory.
Chantal: Now there is no one more deaf than he does not want to hear. This is not something he could not have picked up on. I read and I write columns. I read my colleagues’ columns, and 90% of anything that was written in the three months before the election call went the way of, “Don’t do it.”
Erin: What are the results mostly back to the status quo say about Canadians and our perceptions of government right now?
Chantal: It mostly says that Canadians were comfortable with Justin Trudeau on a bit of a leash and with a minority situation. It also says that voters in general looked at the alternatives and they would mostly have looked at Erin O’Toole not only because he was the main contender for power but he was the newer face on the scene and saw nothing that made them really want to change the government or the makeup of the House of Commons and so in the end, every party got zero reward for his or her campaign.
This is an election that has a winner. Make no mistake. If you wake up in the morning, the Prime Minister, you’re better off than waking up in the morning in opposition. If you look at what everyone wanted, this is a no winner election.
Erin: You were all over Twitter on Monday night. I thought it was quite interesting of course, decades as a prolific and high profile and respected journalist. You’re a Twitter star because of a quote, Chantal, that you said, “An election that nobody wanted and nobody got what they wanted’. Kudos.
Chantal: Election nights, sometimes you end up thinking quickly and sometimes you get yourself in huge trouble. In this case, I didn’t.
Erin: With no liberal majority, no win for Erin O’Toole, only a modest gain for the NDP, and no seat for the Green leader. Did anybody except as waking up as Prime Minister as you said, did anyone get what they wanted with this election?
Chantal: No, although I’m going to say something that is going to sound very counterintuitive, and I’ll probably regret saying it because this is being taped, but if anyone got anything from this election, I would say it would have to be Erin O’Toole. Why do I say that? He got a dry run. If his party allows him to run again and to lead the party again in another election, he will have learned a lot of stuff from his first campaign, made a lot of mistakes that he won’t repeat, and probably will be able to run a better campaign next time. You did notice and I’m going to stress it that there’s a big ‘if’ in my sentence, and the ‘if’ is ‘if’ they allow him to remain as leader.
Erin: Did anything surprise you about the results?
Chantal: A lot of people seem to be surprised. Luck would have it that as a very, very, very junior reporter, I was assigned to cover a little bit of the 1977 provincial campaign in Ontario. Bill Davis had a minority government, elected in ’75, decided that he was going to turn that into a majority, so two years later, manufactured a reason to have an election and ended up with exactly the same legislature. Having seen that early on, you could say that though Stephen Harper was elected in ’06, tried his luck in ’08 to get the majority, and again, failed to get that majority. I thought the results we got was the result any sane person that was not in a Liberal bubble would have expected.
Erin: Back with commentator and longtime political journalist Chantal Hébert in a moment with where housing ranks as this government moves forward and looking for signs literally.
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Now, back to journalist Chantal Hébert on Election 44, insight, info, and more. When you were talking about the litany of reasons in terms of timing as to why the election had to be called when it was, from Prime Minister Trudeau’s standpoint, I couldn’t help but think just for a moment about all those signs on the lawns. As you said in Montreal, they were switching up before the election votes were counted, where do the REALTOR® signs go? I always think about that in elections. I’m trying to sell my house, but how high does the issue of housing typically rate in federal elections compared to other domestic issues like the economy or healthcare or the environment, Chantal?
Chantal: I don’t know about you, but it’s the first time that I see housing emerged as one of the talked about issue. It’s mentioned but talk about to the degree that it was talked about in this election, I can’t remember a campaign when that happened, not even when interest rates were sky-high, because at that point, politicians, as you may remember, would say, “Bank of Canada, that’s not on us.” I think it goes to the larger issue of affordability, which has been one of the overriding themes of this campaign. Housing, for obvious reasons, because of what has happened to the housing market over the course of last spring and the pandemic, became the poster child for the larger affordability issue, and it is a major issue.
That being said, just because politicians talk about housing a lot in a federal election does not necessarily translate into a major issue in Parliament. The reason for that, the reasons are fairly obvious. The federal government’s impact on the housing issue is indirect. It is not accurate that if you elect candidate A versus candidate D, housing will suddenly become more affordable or more houses will be built more quickly in the right places for the right people. There is no expertise, and I think for a few decades, we don’t even have a National Housing minister. We used to, and that has disappeared. So yes, a number of proposals were heard during the election. I’m not so sure that they will necessarily be the stuff that question period is going to be made of because this housing discussion, it’s not going to go away, but it is now going to shift over to those provincial campaigns that I talked about.
Erin: The numbers that we heard during the campaign, which elements of the Liberal housing plan might be up for negotiation with opposition parties in order to get housing legislation passed? The Liberals promised to preserve, build or repair an additional about one and a half million homes over the next four years. The Tories promised to build one million homes over a three-year period, and the NDP, a half million affordable housing units over 10 years, and the Bloc promised to fund affordable housing using 1% of the federal government’s annual revenue. Do you see any of that coming, if not to fruition, then at least being tabled and being discussed in a serious manner moving forward?
Chantal: Okay, you don’t need legislation to do most of these things. You do need to allocate funding to trigger it, but we do know that the federal government is not going to be taking your taxpayers’ dollars to build family homes. What is going to be happening is that the federal government is going to negotiate with cities and with provincial governments to try to put money and incentives in place to get this done, but an army of construction workers is not going to fan out on the basis of some federal legislation. The federal government’s impact on whether it wants to cool or not cool the housing market runs to mechanism that go from the obvious Bank of Canada and interest rates, making it harder for people to qualify for mortgages, and the one that no one talks about, because it’s never going to happen, and if you want, I can tell you why, is taxing profit on your home when you resell.
Erin: Okay, tell us why.
Chantal: Let’s forget the actual campaign and let’s make one up. It could have been anyone, but Justin Trudeau wakes up one morning over the past five weeks and says, “We are going to cool this market and we’re going to help people enter the market by going after all the money that is piled up in the principal residences. My government, if reelected, is going to be taxing the amount of money.” They are going to tax your principal residence, as he says, the same way that we tax cottages. Then what happens? Political Science 101, the leader of the opposition then says, “If elected, I will never do this. If this ever happens, I will run on the promise to undo this.” Guess who becomes the Prime Minister on election?
Erin: You got it, number two.
Chantal: It’s such a political nuclear device that would so blow up on whoever proposes it, and so not survive the election of another party, that no one will ever want to go there. It’s political suicide. Not only is it political suicide, but it’s political suicide for no cause, because you will be replaced by someone who will promise to undo it.
Erin: We did hear some promises that were not political suicide, they were promises.
Chantal: Speculation taxes, yes. If you buy and flip and use the principal residence, I do believe they will tighten that up, up to a point. I have also noticed that they will try to craft it in such a way as to not catch me for instance, buying a nice house and then suddenly discovering that I can’t live in it because of illness, so I need to sell it. I think they will craft it properly. I also believe that if they do present legislation along those lines, they will find support across the aisle.
Erin: Now we’re not only talking homeownership here, we heard promises from the Liberals on a rent-to-own program, buyer’s bill of rights, doubling the first-time homebuyer’s tax credit. While the election was going on, did economists and housing experts back up those proposed measures as being effective and even starting to address Canada’s housing challenges?
Chantal: Most economists, as far as a one could read, said that most of what is being proposed would make little difference to the housing issue. The tax credit route is one that federal governments tend to like, so you will probably see some movement there, but beyond that, a lot of those programs are programs that are run by the provinces, one. Two, it makes a lot of sense that they’re run by provinces because it is possible that the housing market in PEI is a bit different from the housing market in BC. The notion that the federal government can come up with a comprehensive one-size-fits-all approach to this issue, it does not meet the test of reality. Which is why I think that if the federal government is going to be in any way, shape or form proactive beyond the tax measures, proactive on housing, they will do so by striking deals with various provincial governments and if Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver can help it with the big cities.
Erin: Do you think that any of the opposition parties are likely to use housing legislation as a lightning rod for a nonconfidence motion?
Chantal: No, never going to happen. For one, there’s no appetite. If you were one of the opposition parties looking at the numbers this week, I don’t think that you would be looking for reasons to have nonconfidence motions, for one. Two, most of the moves that the Liberals may make on housing will be included in a budget. If the government were to lose the confidence of the house, it would be on its entire budget. I think that the NDP will push really hard to have some housing proposals in the next budget, but the dynamics of a second minority government, in a way, they self-cancel each other.
Justin Trudeau, of course, does not have the weapon of saying, “If you don’t do what I want, I’m going to call an election.” He’s used that one up. The opposition parties are not in a position to create the conditions for an election anytime soon. If you were Jagmeet Singh saying it and suddenly you decided you didn’t like the housing section of the next trans feature budget, would you really bring down the government and then run the risk that your partner across the aisle is the Conservative Party? By and large, I think it’s not a big secret that NDP supporters and a solid section of Bloc supporters are much more comfortable with the Liberal government than the Conservative government.
Erin: Coming up more with journalist Chantal Hébert and her view to the future.
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Now, back to journalist commentator, Chantal Hebert, on REAL TIME. Can I ask you what is your take on the future of the Green Party? You’ve been here for a while and Monday has to have been just devastating on so many fronts as it was here watching the British Columbia news where we’re based. What is your take on the Greens, Chantal?
Chantal: I think they have, at this point, more of a future in a number of provinces, PEI to name one. They used to have more presence in BC, I think, that could come back if and when the NDP is no longer in power and Victoria. I don’t think that the Green Party federally is salvageable under its current leader. I also believe that it is possible for the federal Green Party to find a good leader who is not Elizabeth May.
Erin: The message that we’ve heard listening to you today is that I’m hearing echoes of climate change issues where climate change was never mentioned and now, of course, it’s part of the regular discourse. The homeless situation and housing and affordable housing made it into the election as part of people’s platforms and that seems to speak right to the Green Party. Am I wrong?
Chantal: If you want to be kind to the Green Party, you can say that they’re victims of their own success. I don’t totally buy that. I think climate change climbed up on the radar for obvious reasons that have little to do with a party that never had more than three seats at the back of the House of Commons. Climate change has now become a ballot box issue or a precondition for support for a majority of Canadian voters, while it was not the case maybe 15 years ago. The Conservatives will tell you and I suspect they still pay the price for it in this election, that increasingly when they’re campaigning in the suburbs, be it in BC or Ontario or Quebec, people have no time for whatever it is that they have on offer because they are perceived as not being serious about climate change.
I think a lot of voters have a little box and it says climate change. If you can’t tick that box, they’re not going to consider you. That means that the Green Party, which is so associated with climate change, but so not associated with being in government, is in some trouble at the federal level, because if you’re serious about climate change, what you really want is a government that is serious about climate change, and we will not be having a Green government in Ottawa over the rest of my life. I should say I’m not 30, so I’m not saying that’s not going to happen for 100 years. My working life will never see a Green Party in power at the federal level. I’m not sure that I will ever see a Green Party that has the 12 members required to have official party recognition in Parliament between now and when I decide that I’ve seen enough of all these very nice people.
Erin: Well, with the federal election behind us now, Chantal, how are you hoping to describe the rest of the year?
Chantal: I am, like all others out there, hoping that the winter is not too hard on us, on the pandemic front, that kids will get vaccinated, that in January, we’ll be looking to not coming out of another dark tunnel, but living in some semblance of normalcy as we’ve currently been doing, and that the kids will manage to be in school all year. My demands are not very high. I don’t think we’re done with this. I’m watching what’s happening in Alberta, frankly, scary. I think we’re going to see a lot about people on the political front, not with Justin Trudeau, but on the Conservative front. Some Conservatives want to go after Erin O’Toole. Jason Kenney, I’m not sure will still be Premier in Alberta at Christmas. There’s this election coming up in Ontario with Premier Ford. I think Conservatives and Conservative sympathizers are going to have a lot of action to look up.
Erin: Therefore, so will you keeping an eye on it all for us all. Thank you so much for your time and your insight and your expertise, Chantal, we really do appreciate it.
Chantal: Okay, and I hope that the Trudeau trump speech does include enough lines to keep you people interested.
Erin: I’m sure that it will. Thank you. We’ll have our fingers crossed. Thank you, Chantal.
Chantal: You’re welcome.
Erin: Journalist Chantal Hébert. You can see her regularly on CBC’s The National and can read her in the Toronto Star as well as several other publications. We’re so glad you could hear her on REAL TIME. Don’t miss our next episode when we talk universal design with Brad McCannell. He’s VP of Access and Inclusion with the Rick Hansen Foundation, and he promises to be a great guest. Honestly, they all are.
Just be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode of REAL TIME, a production of Alphabet® Creative with technical production by Rob Whitehead for Real Family Productions. I’m Erin Davis, and we’ll talk again soon on REAL TIME.