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A tale of two leaders: Prime Minister Stephen Harper & NDP Leader Jack Layton

Stephen Harper’s first speech as Prime Minister to the annual conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in sunny Montreal today was brief and cautious.

“The Conservative leader failed to announce any new commitments to help our communities wrestle down the growing infrastructure deficit,” said CUPE National President Paul Moist.

“Instead, Harper said his government would continue the funding plan put in place by the previous Liberal government under the “New Deal for Cities and Communities”,” Moist said.

Under that deal, a portion of the federal gas tax will be transferred to the provinces for municipal infrastructure. The amount is to grow to 5 cents per litre after 5 years, but CUPE and many others have been calling for that “New Deal” to be sped up.

That’s what NDP leader Jack Layton called for today in his address to the FCM. Layton, a former FCM president and veteran city councillor, was warmly received by FCM delegates.

It’s not hard to see why. Layton demanded that the Harper government transfer the full 5 cents now. And he was the first leader at this year’s conference to take questions from the delegates on the floor.

“You can’t build sewer lines with one or two-year budget projections,” Layton told the approving delegates.

Harper, by contrast, started late and kept people waiting – just like he’s keeping the cities waiting – before he delivered his short speech. He skirted around the core issue of long-term, stable and predictable funding for municipal infrastructure. In fact, he talked more about getting tough on crime than he did on getting tough on crumbling infrastructure and rejuvenating cash-strapped social programs.

Harper just doesn’t seem to get it. He’s not admitting to the need for the New Deal money to be transferred now. But Layton is saying, let’s get it done.

Women in politics:

CUPE is not the only organization trying to dismantle the barriers to women’s full participation in political life. Like CUPE’s task force on women’s participation within the union, the FCM is also doing some soul-searching.

Its Standing Committee on Increasing Women’s Participation in Municipal Government has consulted across the country and today presented its findings in Montreal.

Common barriers include: inadequate info about how to get involved; lack of connections between the municipalities and women’s groups; the perception that volunteer groups afford women better opportunities to make a difference; family responsibilities; lack of inclusive policies; discrimination; and, lack of financial resources.

People interviewed in this research agreed that communities benefit when women participate, telling the committee that decisions are more likely to reflect the needs of the entire community when women are fully involved. Communities benefit when they can tap in to the skills and knowledge that women have to offer. And better representation of women in decision-making means that communities are more likely to support political decisions.

Quebec National Task Force member, Sister Lucie Levasseur and Sister Annick Desjardins, CUPE equality staff representative both attended this session. Materials were collected and will be shared with CUPE’s Task Force members.

Da Fiscal Code

The real “fiscal imbalance” lies at the municipal level, FCM delegates were told today in a workshop on how municipalities are being affected by federal and provincial neglect.

After more than a decade of federal downloading and funding cutbacks, cities are being asked to do things that the federal and provincial governments used to do.

The real “fiscal imbalance” is what one FCM delegate from northern Ontario, a woman councillor from Sudbury, called the “devolution” of the social safety net.

We couldn’t agree more, sister.

It’s not just a question of money, though that’s crucial. The federal government needs to take responsibility for social issues like homelessness and the lack of affordable, quality child care and other social services. It will do that by stepping up to the plate and strengthening universal social programs, not passing the buck to the provinces like Harper is planning to do.

Watch cupe.ca for more on this Conservative con-game.

CUPE gets good feedback from the floor:

CUPE leaders, members and staff have met dozens of delegates and, so far, all of the feedback about CUPE has been positive. It seems mayors, councillors, city staff and other officials have high regard for the working women and men in our union.

National President Paul Moist was pleased to collect many diverse and positive comments about CUPE members across the country, from the community work that members are doing, to volunteer efforts to cordial labour relations.

A city manager from Grand Prairie, AB, had some particulary good feedback for CUPE. He took some literature from last year’s FCM on CUPE’s literacy work and, inspired, began a partnership with CUPE 787 to build a literacy program that’s up and running today. He was glad to see CUPE back at the FCM again.

It’s working. Building relationships and making friends is helping CUPE build stronger communities across the country.

Stay tuned for more from beautiful Montreal, QE.