The election signs are being printed, the campaign buses are being redecorated and the pork is being handed out.
The Conservative government is preparing an infrastructure spending spree in the runup to the fall election, as federal and provincial sources confirm work is heating up to announce new projects under the New Building Canada Fund.
The $14-billion program was first announced more than two years ago, but a Globe & Mail analysis reveals that only about $1.2-billion has so far been rolled out. The breakdown shows that the vast majority of approved projects are in small communities in just two provinces, Manitoba and New Brunswick. The two sections of the fund dedicated to larger projects have barely been touched.
Infrastructure is any government's favourite type of pork. Hand out advertising contracts to the wrong people and you could wind up losing an election. Bribe public sector workers for a decade and you might just bankrupt the richest province in Canada. Bridges, sewers and other needful buildings are politically bullet proof by comparison. Not terribly expensive, at least not when compared to social programs, they have the added advantage of being physically tangible. You can even name them after your political heroes and allies.
This sort of electoral corruption has been going on since John A was in knee pants. Few people get worked up about it and those who do tend to be opposition politicians, the sort of people who are really complaining about the pork being lavished on someone else's riding. This cynical acceptance is bad for good governance. It places the needs of party ahead of country. In its modern variant, as mastered by the Harper Tories, it also weakens federalism.
Taking a casual glance at federal government media releases over only the last few days yields a bumper crop of voting buying exercises:
Justice Minister Peter MacKay has announced that "$3,139,925 in federal funding for three wastewater projects and one drinking water improvement project in Nova Scotia through the Small Communities Fund." By the strangest coincidence most of this money will be spent in the riding of Central Nova where the MP is - you guessed it - Peter MacKay. Just because he's leaving politics doesn't mean he can't leave a little gift to the people who have so loyally voted for him and his father, Elmer MacKay.
Not wanting to leave the good people of the Prairies thirsty, the Tories then spread their clean water largesse to the province of Saskatchewan. Last week it was announced that:
...residents of west-central Saskatchewan celebrated access to higher-quality drinking water with the grand opening of the Saskatchewan Landing Regional Water Supply project. The project includes a 42-kilometer long main water pipeline, water treatment plants, and 700 kilometers of connecting lateral rural water pipelines.
Just because every riding in rural Saskatchewan is held by the Tories doesn't mean the local voters can't be reminded of who brings home the bacon. Keeping with the water theme the Tories then darted back east to the mighty Miramichi:
The Honourable Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and Tilly O’Neill Gordon, Member of Parliament for Miramichi, on behalf of the Honourable Candice Bergen, Minister of State for Social Development, today announced over $92,000 in funding to improve accessibility at two buildings in Miramichi.
With funding of $47,000, The Point Church undertook renovations to four washrooms. Mount Saint Joseph Foundation Inc. received over $45,000 to build an accessible work station and dining tables at Mount Saint Joseph Nursing Home.
I'm not sure what definition of conservatism the Tories are using these days, but apparently it encompasses buying new dining tables for a New Brunswick non-profit. I doubt this is what the Fathers of Confederation had in mind when they hammered out the British North America Act.
Staying within the province of New Brunswick we find the Tories once again flushing limited government down the drain. Last week they announced that $34,189 is to be spent on:
...installing a new storm drain lining along Pugsley Street to rejuvenate the deteriorating storm sewer system in this location. Where pipes are not too badly damaged, adding linings is an economical alternative to the major construction involved in completely replacing them. By taking these steps to renew the storm drainage system, Nackawic is helping ensure that residents benefit from efficient storm water management services that protect against flooding and potential property damage.
The damage done to the principles of Canadian federalism will be harder to fix. Now many of you are thinking that all this infrastructure talk is boring. You're quite right. And the Tories agree too! That's why they're spending your tax dollars and mine on something fun:
The Government of Canada is providing the Upper Canada Playhouse with $97,500 in funding, through the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, to support the construction of an extension to the main Upper Canada Playhouse theatre.
The Canada Cultural Spaces Fund supports the improvement, renovation and construction of arts and heritage facilities and the acquisition of specialized equipment. It is also designed to increase access for Canadians to performing, visual and media arts and to museum collections and heritage displays.
Under the Harper Tories conservatism is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.
The above is but a small tip of the very big iceberg known as the Government of Canada. None of the projects I've noted above is terribly objectionable in and of themselves. Clean water, working sewers and quality nursing homes are things which obviously improve the lives of ordinary Canadians.
What is objectionable is who is doing it. Even if you accept the idea that government at any level should be funding such projects, rather than leaving such matters to the more efficient and effective hands of private charities and businesses, it is not the proper role of the federal government.
Underpinning the success of any federal system is the idea of subsidiarity. Simply put this is the idea that problems should be dealt with at the level most consistent with their solution. Potholes and broken sewer mains are the bailiwick of the most local level of government. It's those closest to the problem who understand it best, not some distant bureaucrat or politician in a federal capital.
What does Peter MacKay, who spends much of his time in Ottawa, really know about the water quality in Central Nova? And even if he knows a lot, does he know more than those who live there full time?
The flip side of solving local problems locally is accountability. If that storm drain lining down Pugsley Street fails who are the local residents most capable of pressuring to fix it: A federal cabinet minister or the local mayor or councillor?
When the federal government muscles in on the turf of municipal governments they do more than buy votes, they weaken one of the key elements in the success of Canada: Federalism.
It's true enough, and easy enough to point out, that the Liberals and NDP would be far, far worse. Instead of sewer lines our tax dollars would be spent on unionized trans-gendered community centres. At least with the Tories you're getting pork that feeds the great majority of the people. Yet whoever is in power it seems that our constitutional order is getting taken for a ride.
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