By: Alec Bruce
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s whistle-stop in Saint John the other day fooled precisely no one. Dressed up to appear like a public meeting — an opportunity for the Conservative government to issue its third report on its economic action plan — it played more like a pep rally; a pre-election preach-fest for the benefit of the party faithful.
The federal stimulus program is working. Ninety per cent of the money is ‘committed’ to projects across the land. The sun is shining. The chickens are returning to their respective pots. The peasants are rejoicing.
Not so fast, declared the rival Liberals. As their research shows that only 12 per cent of qualified projects are actually under way, Grit MP Scott Brison felt free to gripe, “The fact is the Harper government has failed to ensure the funds are flowing at a time when an unprecedented number of Canadians are losing their jobs. They (the Tories) refuse to provide the real truth on when the projects are started.”
All of which set the tongues of many pundits wagging. “This is the ugly bogeyman of stimulus,” Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies told the Halifax Chronicle Herald. “Every economist (said) there’s no way that they (the Tories) can do this fast enough to have any impact on the recession anywhere, anytime before 2010. So for the prime minister to stand there and say the economic action plan is having an important part in the overall recovery — that’s just foolishness.”
Equally brimming with balderdash, some say, is the Liberal party’s claim — implied by its criticism — that they would have done better. “I’m not aware of any large economic differences between the two main political parties,” said Erin Weir, an economist for the United Steelworkers. “If you compare the Liberals and the Conservatives, both have the attitude that deficits are a bad thing. But both aren’t promising to balance the budget instantly either. Both want to continue corporate tax cuts and not increase any taxes. I just don’t see any huge change in economic policy, even if the Liberals were somehow able to form a government.”
Still, amid all this hyperbolic mischief, is a fundamental question: Why has it been so difficult to plant the figurative and literal shovels in the ground this year?
It is, perhaps, ironic that the one branch of the federal government which has demonstrated indisputable success executing the infrastructure portion of the stimulus program is the very organization the sitting prime minister once dismissed as a waste of tax dollars and a catalyst of ‘deaftism.’
Since May, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), headquartered in Moncton, has overseen the regional implementation of both the Community Adjustment Fund (CAF) and the Recreation Infrastructure Canada Program (RInC). To date, CAF has committed $68 million to 95 community development projects with an overall value of $195 million to the Atlantic Provinces. RInC, meanwhile, has committed $16.7 million to 116 projects valued at $55.3 million.
But here’s the kicker: Thanks to ACOA’s deft handling of the files, 114 of these 211 projects are verifiably under way. Some have been completed.
This gives the federal government’s stimulus effort — at least in this corner of the steppe — a 50 per cent success rate.
Say what you will about the merits of these programs, it’s hard to deny that the economic action plan, as scripted, is actually working on the east coast. It’s also hard to lend credence to the claim that the 2009 rollout was doomed from the start.
In fact, ACOA’s initiative and skill speaks directly to its 20-year history of delivering just these sorts of programs to hard-luck communities across the region.
It’s something the prime minister might want to remember the next time he has occasion to whistle-stop his key messages at pep rallies.
The truth is more compelling, and useful, than all the PR in all the spin rooms of the nation he seeks to stimulate into economic action.