Federal cabinet minister Keith Ashfield is promising millions more in funding for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in his government’s January budget, money he says will support infrastructure projects and create jobs during tough economic times.


Ashfield, the member of Parliament for Fredericton and minister responsible for ACOA, said the Tories will add as much as $30 million to the agency’s $328-million annual budget.

At least one policy expert says talk of economic turmoil has the Tories loosening the federal purse strings in an un-Conservative and “disconcerting” manner.


But Ashfield said the new funds will help fulfill Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pledge to accelerate infrastructure spending in the Jan. 27 budget – to “spur the economy and create employment.”


“That would be the role of ACOA,” the political veteran and rookie MP, said in an interview.

“That’s what we’re looking for in the short term to try to get over the economic challenges we’re facing right now.”


Ashfield, who served as Natural Resources minister under former Tory premier Bernard Lord, also said there are up to $200 million in projects now approved by the agency that need only the final green light for actual funding.


“Those are in the hopper now. It’s just a matter of the funding. We could be up and running very quickly,” he said of the economic development agency. “We have to get over this hump that we’re facing in the economy. If we can get people to work that will help our situation.”

Charles Cirtwill, of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says the new Conservative approach to government spending is “problematic.”


He says the Harper Tories appear to be moving from a cautious approach of investing only in sound projects to providing funds for any project that is ready to go, regardless of its merits or return to taxpayers.


“It’s very disconcerting. This isn’t what ACOA or the government should be doing,” said the executive vice-president of the Halifax-based think-tank.


According to Cirtwill, governments are also overstating the immediate economic impact of construction and building projects.


They are not going to instantly improve the economy, he said, because the trickle-down from construction and engineering paycheques is slower than governments would admit.

“That’s the problem with this type of stuff: it costs a lot of money and it creates a lot of expectations,” he concluded.


But Ashfield maintains the extra ACOA money will help the region and bring the agency’s funding back to levels it experienced before cuts by the Liberals in the mid-1990s. In fact, the budget for ACOA dropped 25 per cent to $328 million in 2008-’09 under the Harper Conservatives.


But the Tories insist they haven’t cut anything, with former ACOA minister Peter MacKay saying the funding levels are “as solid as a rock in the North Atlantic.”


During the 2006 election campaign Harper promised to maintain the agency’s budget, even though he had said that “those kinds of programs have to go” only a year earlier.