By Stephen Maher

As appeared on page A7


OTTAWA — The federal government failed Monday to provide numbers to prove that it has not cut ACOA’s budget, as ACOA Minister Peter MacKay asserts in a letter to The Chronicle Herald.


The government’s main estimates, released last week, show the Tories have reduced Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency spending by $71 million — 16 per cent — in the past two years.


This appears to be a broken promise from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who vowed in Halifax during the last election campaign to maintain ACOA’s budget.

Not so, Mr. MacKay said in a letter to the editor in today’s edition that contests the accuracy of a Chronicle Herald article last week about the Tories’ cuts to ACOA.


“Community infrastructure projects in Atlantic Canada, which were originally housed with ACOA, are now with Infrastructure Canada,” Mr. MacKay writes. “This accounting change has no bearing on the significant infrastructure investments this government is making across Atlantic Canada — in its communities and in major regional projects. In other words, not a red cent is removed from the overall contributions to Atlantic Canadian communities.”


But on Monday officials in Mr. MacKay’s office, ACOA’s head office and Infrastructure Canada could not produce the numbers to show how much money Infrastructure Canada will spend on community infrastructure projects in the region.


The published spending estimates for Infrastructure Canada don’t provide a regional breakdown and it’s not clear that there is new money separate from the federal government’s long-standing infrastructure programs. The total national infrastructure budget is increased by only $4 million this year, not enough to explain the $71-million reduction in ACOA’s budget.


This makes the government’s assertion suspect, said Dalhousie economics professor Lars Osberg.


“Four is much less than 71,” he said. “And presumably it wasn’t all spent in Atlantic Canada. You could write a story searching for the missing $71 million. You know, where did it go? Is it out there somewhere? Have you seen it?”


The government’s assertion is confusing, said Ian Munro, director of research for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a think-tank often critical of ACOA spending.


“As a simple line item, it’s clear ACOA’s budget has gone down,” he said Monday. “But for this ‘Oh, the money’s actually being spent under infrastructure,’ it’s really hard to make head nor tail of it. There’s not much detail here. You just can’t see what’s going where. You can’t really prove or disprove the statement.”


Mr. Osberg said even if the government could show increased infrastructure spending, it still doesn’t mean Mr. Harper kept his promise.


“When somebody says that they’re not going to cut a specific budget, that promise applies to that budget,” he said. “You could say many good things happened on other fronts, but if you said that a particular budget wasn’t going to get cut, that’s what you said.”


Prior to the last election campaign, when he changed his tune, Mr. Harper was a harsh critic of ACOA, promising to quickly kill the regional development program, calling it inefficient and prone to political cronyism.


Mr. Osberg said Mr. Harper may have been right in his criticism of ACOA, but he promised not to cut the program.


“You can debate ACOA one way or another,” he said. “That’s a whole different issue. But if you said you weren’t going to cut a budget and you did it, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do.”


Officials in Mr. MacKay’s office did not respond to an interview request.