The Harper government has doled out nearly $10 billion in last three months

February 19, 2007
Tonda MacCharles
Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA–The federal Conservative government is on a spending spree with taxpayers' money, doling out $9.8 billion in the past three months.
With the possibility of a spring election in the air, the Toronto Star examined hundreds of government news releases since the beginning of December, and tallied more than $9.8 billion in spending announcements.
The period coincides with the election of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, which kicked off a sharper, more focused debate over the Conservative government's political priorities.
Nearly half of the three-month total – $4.5 billion – has been announced in the first three weeks of February alone.
The $9.8 billion total is a rounded number, as the total was growing almost hourly last week as new announcements were posted to federal websites.
In most instances, the spending announcements amount to rolling out details at a local level of larger programs that were budgeted last spring.
Sometimes there were ribbon-cuttings by ministers or MPs; sometimes the news was announced twice, days apart in separate news releases; sometimes different ministers in separate news releases announced the same spending.
No wonder speculation is whirling around Ottawa that the upcoming budget, expected late March, could trigger a federal election.
"It certainly smells like pre-election spending," says Liberal finance critic John McCallum.
But it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's surprise $1.5 billion announcement in Quebec last week for a national EcoTrust program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants that really raised eyebrows. That $1.5 billion is new money, above and beyond the $2 billion the Conservatives' 2006-07 budget projected for environmental spending.
It is to be included in next month's budget, but it is money Harper, on the eve of an expected Quebec election, said he would draw from the 2006-07 year-end surplus, the very kind of spending he condemned his Liberal predecessors for. Further, it's money that will not be spent if the next Harper budget does not pass.
"It seems there is no limit to the hypocrisy of this government, because when they were in opposition they would slam us at every opportunity for spending the budget at the end of the year, the `March madness,' and now I think they've gone mad themselves," says McCallum, MP for Markham-Unionville.
McCallum says the Liberals believed it was "appropriate" to spend year-end surplus money "in important investments like the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and other things."
"The difference is we never said it was wrong to do. They say it's wrong to do and now they're doing it."
It's got small-c conservatives like John Williamson, director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, griping that the Conservatives have put on the backburner their commitments to paying down debt and broad-based tax relief.
"When it comes to spending and making announcements, the `new' government looks an awful lot like the old government," Williamson says.
He says the government has failed to keep its promises on two counts: it is not reining in spending growth, and it is "spending down the surplus" just as the Liberals used to do.
"They vowed (during the last election campaign) to hold any spending growth down to inflation growth plus population growth, which is slightly under 3 per cent in 2006," he says.
Now, program spending is growing at a rate of around 7.8 per cent, he says.
"Politically, the government will find it difficult in the future to lampoon the opposition for its spending record. They're virtually indistinguishable after one year in power."
In Quebec, various ministers and MPs have announced more than $535 million in spending in the last three months. The federal money in Quebec runs the gamut from grants to local theatres, help for the province's 400th anniversary plans and business loans for promising high-tech companies to big-ticket items such as water treatment systems, or Quebec's share of broader national programs, like $350 million from the EcoTrust project.
In the Greater Toronto Area – where there are few Conservative MPs – there have been far fewer announcements over the same span. Instead, Toronto is usually used as a stage for announcing national programs, such as a $2.6 million pediatric wait-times pilot project Harper outlined in January.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty shrugs off any criticisms or questions about "politics" behind the announcements, saying only "all of the announcements are within the fiscal framework of the government."
And there are more to come, he promises. "The funding for infrastructure in last year's budget was $16.5 billion over four years. We've only begun to make announcements with respect to infrastructure and there should be more."
While the Conservatives have continued paying for a range of infrastructure programs that were put in place by the former Liberal government, Flaherty insists they are acting where the Liberals had no plan.
"When I look at the Greater Toronto Area, which I know the best, I'm sorry, I don't see the plan that the former Liberal government had with respect to infrastructure. In fact, I see an absence of that."
Steve Patten, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, says governments of all stripes give in to pressure to spend in the run-up to elections.
But Patten's "gut reaction" is that such spending does not work the way it used to when roads got paved and wharves built just prior to elections, and produced victories on ballot day. Voters, he says, are more cynical about ward-heeling politics. He also points to the high number who go into elections undecided and make up their minds late in a campaign, suggesting they don't vote based on pre-writ spending.
What the Conservatives' spending does do, he says, is allow Harper to claim he is "delivering on priorities."
Take Harper's announcement last month of a $2.6 million investment in a wait-time guarantee for pediatric surgery. Harper went to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children to announce the money for a 15-month pilot project to measure wait times for children who need surgery and develop plans for those who don't get treated in a timely way.
Critics have taken shots at Harper for failing to make progress on his long-promised health-care wait-times guarantees – one of his five initial priorities – but Patten says moves like this allow Harper to show concrete action and say to critics, "Well, we've done this."
On issues such as the environment, Patten says Harper is jacking up spending not, as many believe, so he can campaign on it, but to eliminate it as a wedge issue that his political opponents can campaign against him on.