NDP’s Singh seeks urban support with housing billions, avoids deficit questions

Party’s promises also include universal pharmacare, free tuition for post-secondary education

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks with two women following a campaign announcement in Ottawa, Tuesday September 17, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Jagmeet Singh continued his push to win progressive votes on Tuesday by promising an NDP government would invest billions of dollars in affordable housing to help Canadians struggling to make ends meet.

The commitment was the NDP’s latest pledge to expand social programs. The party’s promises have included universal pharmacare and free tuition for post-secondary education while promising higher taxes on large corporations and the wealthy.

Yet Singh also deflected questions about how and when an NDP government would tackle the federal deficit, saying only that he would make different choices from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and that his priority is helping Canadians now.

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“We want to take the budget very seriously, and we’ll look at what that means in the future,” Singh said during a campaign event at a non-profit housing complex in downtown Ottawa, a few kilometres from Parliament Hill.

“But right now our priority’s investing in some of the crises that people are going through.”

Singh’s stop in the capital on Tuesday meant a return to Ontario, where he spent the first few days of the campaign before a tour of western Quebec over the weekend. He was in Ottawa Centre, where Liberal Catherine McKenna defeated New Democrat Paul Dewar in 2015. The seat has historically flipped back and forth between the Liberals and the NDP.

After kicking a soccer ball with some children, Singh announced that an NDP government would build 500,000 new affordable homes over 10 years, starting with an immediate investment of $5 billion.

“Our priorities are the people behind me, the families who need affordable housing, the people who tell me that they cannot find a place to live,” Singh said during the low-key campaign event before attacking the Liberals’ record.

READ MORE: Trudeau seeks to one-up Conservatives with plan on maternity, parental benefits

The NDP leader cited a report by parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux in June that found under the Liberals’ plan, spending on affordable housing is slated to fall as a percentage of the economy over the next decade.

While the raw dollar figure is set to increase, Giroux found federal spending on housing is slated to decline from 0.13 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product in 2017-18 to 0.11 per cent in 2027-28.

Meanwhile, census data released Tuesday shows roughly one-third of Canadian households, 4.7 million, live in rental housing and they are often low-income earners, young adults, or newcomers to Canada.

In addition, 44 per cent of renters under age 30 spend 30 per cent or more of their incomes on housing. More than half of young renters in Toronto, Metro Vancouver and Ottawa do.

Similar affordability issues are found among seniors (including for 64 per cent of those renting in Regina), recent immigrants to Canada, and single mothers.

“We hear Mr. Trudeau talk about there is a housing crisis with more of those pretty words,” Singh said during the campaign event. “You know, acknowledging the problem, but then when it comes to the actual solving of the problem, empty promises.”

Yet Singh was hard-pressed to say where he would find $5 billion for affordable housing in the first year of his mandate, and instead pointed to the Liberal government having found billions to pay for corporate tax cuts and the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Singh painted the $4.5 billion for the pipeline and $14 billion in corporate tax cuts, which the government has said were needed to help Canadian companies compete with U.S. competitors following similar cuts down south, as a handout to the wealthy.

Some experts have said such a characterization is misleading as it does not acknowledge how ordinary Canadians might benefit, too, by driving investment in the country and getting Canadian oil to more lucrative markets.

“When something is a priority, Mr. Trudeau seems to go out and do it,” said Singh. “But it hasn’t been a priority to make people’s lives better. We believe our priority should be investing in people, investing in housing, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

While Singh noted his previous promises to hike taxes on corporations and the wealthy, close various tax loopholes and crack down on tax evasion, he indicated all revenues from those measures will be put into social programs.

“With these measures we’re going to increase revenue and we’re going to use the revenue towards programs that actually invest in our country,” he said of the tax hikes and other initiatives. “We know that if we invest in people, we build a better future.”

Both the New Democrats and Conservatives promised in the last federal election to run balanced budgets if elected, while the Liberals were elected on a promise to run modest deficits during the first few years of their mandate before returning to balance.

In the three full fiscal years since the Liberals came to power, however, the federal government has posted $52 billion worth of shortfalls even though the economy has had a solid run of growth.

READ MORE: Housing, children, privacy to feature in leaders’ plans on Day 7 of campaign

Ahead of next month’s election, the Liberals have laid out projections calling for five more years of deficits of at least $10 billion. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is promising to pull Canada out of the red in about five years.

Green Leader Elizabeth May has also committed to returning Canada to budgetary balance in five years. Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada is the only political party that’s promised a quick path to balanced books — within two years.

—With files from Jordan Press

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misnamed the pipeline project the federal government bought.

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