In rolling out her first budget, Valérie Plante has failed to level with voters about tax increases that went against her party’s platform.
The new administration’s budget, released on Wednesday, will improve the lives of many Montrealers. In a difficult context, the budget makes real strides towards fulfilling key campaign pledges.
Among these we find a much-needed $28 million boost to public transit (a 5 per cent jump) and measures to improve pedestrian safety, as well as nearly $20 million for diverse housing initiatives and multi-million-dollar increases to the budgets for arts and culture, snow removal, and the frontline services provided by the boroughs.
The renewed investments will come with a price. Residents will see their taxes increased by an average of 3.3 per cent, which represents an additional $118 a year for an average homeowner in Montreal and far less for the majority of Montrealers who rent.
Fixing the pipes
The hike is due chiefly to the increase in the water tax, which has been frozen since 2013 despite massive investments in the city’s aging water infrastructure that will have ballooned from $93 million in 2014 to $500 million in 2018.
Plante has argued that the increase to the water tax is necessary and that the investments are the responsible thing to do given the catastrophic state of our water infrastructure. It is estimated that Montreal loses a third of its drinking water every year due to leaky pipes, and it costs ten times more to repair the 850 water mains that rupture each year than to plan the works in advance.
The decisions made are thus highly justifiable. If the story of the Plante budget stopped here, Montrealers might have woken up on Thursday to an entirely different narrative plastered across the headlines.
Instead, the budget has been met with unanimous denunciations of her “broken promise” — and understandably so. Plante’s tax increase violated the express commitment made in Projet Montréal’s campaign platform to “fulfill its program without increasing taxes beyond inflation,” then pegged at 2.1 per cent for 2018.
This is no minor thing. A campaign platform is a party’s contract with citizens, a solemn set of commitments and values on which a government’s performance can be measured and held to account.
It has been doubly disappointing, therefore, to see the mayor trying to rewrite her platform post-election by insisting that her pledge referred only to the 1.9 per cent increase to the property tax. In repeatedly denying the evident truth of a broken promise, Valérie Plante guaranteed that the tax increase would overshadow the rest of the budget.
It can be argued that the corner the Plante administration found themselves in was not entirely of their own making. Projet Montréal claims to have been left a surprise $358 million budgetary shortfall by the preceding administration, which is possible only because opposition parties in Montreal lack access to the books that would allow them to make fully informed decisions regarding their platforms. Plante, to her credit, has agreed to put an end to this situation by tasking the city’s auditor general with publishing the state of the city’s finances prior to each election.
It can become necessary and even responsible at times for politicians to go back on a commitment if new information or circumstances come to light. Citizens are mature enough to accept this when it’s justified. But the condition is that their leaders are transparent and upfront with them, and that they respect citizens’ intelligence and democratic rights enough to acknowledge the broken promise, explain fully, and gain their support.
Plante’s inability to level with voters sabotaged any hopes that they would let this reversal pass, and comes as a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Montrealers who expected more from this mayor.
Missing the point
Some Plante supporters have cried foul over the media’s obsessive focus on the tax increase, and have tried to argue the many merits of the budget as a whole.
But this is to miss the point of the present uproar. Politicians’ actions, whether we support them or not, are built on the foundation of trust between citizens and representatives. The edifice of representative democracy crumbles if politicians are allowed to make easy promises to win votes, jettison them when the going gets rough, and then claim that a broken promise is not a broken promise — and it is precisely the media’s role to push back hard against those who attempt to do just that.
Valerie Plante’s failure to own up to a broken promise has fuelled the ambient cynicism that is eating away at these democratic foundations.
Today, every voice that says “Nothing ever changes” and “They’re all the same” is emboldened. And it just got a little harder to argue that they’re wrong.