On 16 December 2021, mandate letters for Canada’s federal ministers were made public. The letter for Canada’s Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion, available here, contains an important set of marching orders.

Here are 10 things to know.

1. Mandate letters outline the Government of Canada’s priorities according to the Prime Minister. In the words of Michael Mendelson: “Mandate letters set out the Prime Minister’s directions to Ministers as to what initiatives they are authorized to undertake during the current term in office. Presumably it implies that the Prime Minister will support the Ministers in obtaining funding and other requirements (e.g., legislative time) to enable them to fulfill their mandates, although the Ministers still must follow the regular approval process. It doesn’t absolutely rule out Ministers undertaking other initiatives, but central government support for initiatives outside of their mandate might be limited.”

2. Mandate letters enable Ministers to be held to account by the Prime Minister. According to Robert Shepherd: “The letter is considered a performance accord with the minister, which is then translated by senior officials into measurable activities, reported on at regular intervals to the Privy Council Office.” Put differently, any minister wanting to advance in their career had better pay close attention to their letter!

3. The very principle of mandate letters implies a ‘top down’ process of prioritization in which the Prime Minister’s Office runs the show. According to Michael Mendelson, “the whole idea of mandate letters is contrary to the idea of Cabinet government in which the Prime Minister is just first amongst equals. Cabinet is supposed to set priorities, not the Prime Minister’s office.” Though, to be fair, Mr. Trudeau is the first Canadian Prime Minister to make these letters published 

4. What you see is what you get. According to Jennifer Robson, these particular mandate letters “are written by officials in Privy Council Office…But they are also reviewed by senior political staff for consistency with platform commitments or other policy plans and serve as an opportunity to add to or adjust the promises made in the campaign. In this government, the mandate letters we see are the real ones that Ministers and officials work from – there isn’t a second, secret ‘real’ set of letters.”

5. Minister Hussen’s letter has numerous provisions focused on ‘cooling down’ house prices. For example, the letter asks the Minister to: implement an anti-flipping tax; temporarily ban foreign homebuyers; and review the tax treatment of Real Estate Investment Trusts.

6. The letter also asks the Minister to help new households get into the home ownership market. For instance, the letter asks Minister Hussen to: increase “consumer protection and transparency in real estate transactions, including a ban on blind bidding;” and “create a fund to test, develop and scale up rent-to-own projects…”

7. Minister Hussen may find it challenging to both ‘cool down’ the selling prices of homes while also getting more households into the ownership market. After all, increased demand from prospective buyers will increase home prices, meaning that these two priorities may be working at cross purposes in the ownership market (though, to be fair, shifting more households into ownership and away from renting would exert downward pressure on average rent levels).

8. The letter reiterates a campaign commitment to increase funding for an unpopular program. Specifically, the letter asks the Minister to “[i]ncrease funding to the National Housing Co-Investment Fund…” This program is unpopular among many non-profit housing developers for having an onerous application process, taking too long to release funds once they’re approved, and having an insufficient grant component (most of the funding for this initiative consists of loans).

9. Minister Hussen’s letter asks him to deliver on one commitment that has been a long time coming. Specifically, the letter asks the Minister to “[p]roceed with the appointment of a new Federal Housing Advocate to monitor progress in meeting the goals of the National Housing Strategy…” This commitment was first made by the Trudeau Liberals in 2017.

10. This letter reiterates this government’s commitment to ending chronic homelessness. This is like saying it’s OK to have some homelessness, but that nobody should be homeless for very long (the Government of Canada’s formal definition of chronic homelessness can be found here). I think if this government were serious about the commitment, it would announce large permanent funding enhancements to both Reaching Home (the federal government’s main funding vehicle for homelessness) and the Rapid Housing Initiative (which has been effective at creating permanent housing for persons experiencing chronic homelessness).

In sum. This letter, much like the Liberal Party’s election platform, says a great deal about the need to cool off hot housing markets, but very little about homelessness. Interestingly, the mandate letter puts much less emphasis than the election platform on helping first-time buyers get into the ownership market, which may represent a shift in priorities.

I wish to thank the following individuals for assistance with this blog post: Alex Himelfarb, Michael Mendelson, Leslie Pal, Steve Pomeroy, Shayne Ramsay, Sylvia Regnier, Jennifer Robson, Robert Shepherd, Vincent St-Martin, Alex Tétreault and one anonymous reviewer.

NOTE: La version française de ce billet se trouve ici.