THE FEDERAL Conservative economic stimulus package has been revealed for the slow, plodding beast that it is. The shovels are still ready; the money is nowhere in sight.

With fall minority government madness upon us in our nation’s capital, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff are busily tossing grenades back and forth over who is best suited to run the country through the economic recession.

Ignatieff, eager to capitalize on weak Conservative numbers in Quebec, is this week taking his second crack at forcing a federal election. Never mind that it’s less than a year since the last one, and never mind that every time this manoeuvre fails, thanks to the federal NDP propping up the Conservatives in the House of Commons, Ignatieff looks weaker and more desperate.

Meanwhile, Harper is not much better, breaking his arm patting himself on the back for the success of his economic stimulus package. In Saint John on Monday, Harper released his latest fiscal report card to a friendly audience.

He told the group that 90 per cent of the $29-billion package for 2009-10 has been committed. The report itself says that $7.6 billion in federal funds have been allocated for $21 billion in projects to be funded, in part, by the provinces and municipalities, including $3 billion of the $4-billion Infrastructure Stimulus Fund committed to 2,900 shovel-ready projects.

“These projects are creating or sustaining hundreds of thousands of jobs,” said Harper.

He went on to say that “more than 4,000 projects are already in the construction and preconstruction stages.”

This is a demonstration of the wily art of semantics at its best, given that so little of the money has actually been spent. Preconstruction is a long, long way from shovels in the ground, despite all the political shovelling that’s occurred over the past nine months about “shovel-ready” infrastructure investments.

Indeed, in the provincial budget that came out last week, millions set aside for the provincial share of funding for supposedly shovel-ready projects had been pushed ahead to next year’s budget — 2010-11 — because the federal government did not have its act together quickly enough to get projects approved and underway in time for this year’s funding commitments.

Ignatieff, meanwhile, discounted Harper’s claim, saying only 12 per cent of the projects are actually underway.

“We’re tired of this kind of game playing,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “We wanted real accountability. We wanted a government that tells Canadians the truth.”

He insisted that if the Liberals were in power, much more would have been done by now to get those projects underway to save jobs that have already been lost in communities across the country.

As Stephen Maher, the Ottawa Bureau chief for The Chronicle Herald, reported in Tuesday’s edition, they’re both full of baloney.

“This is the ugly bogeyman of stimulus,” said Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“Every economist told them there’s no way they can do this fast enough to have any impact on the recession anywhere any time before 2010. So for the prime minister to stand there today and say the economic action plan is having an important part in the overall recovery of the economy, that’s just foolishness and he knows that.”

Harper’s report cited other elements of the stimulus plan that he says are paying benefits for the Canadian economy, including the HST cut, investments in hard-hit sectors of the economy, an early federal budget, skills training and employment insurance help for those out of work and continued stability in our banking sector.

Great. All of this should help the country turn the corner and weather the recession, but when it comes to “shovel-ready” projects, the impact is not quite here. We’ll be finished another season of shovelling snow long before most of the work is anywhere near reality.