By Stephen Maher
As appeared on page A1

OTTAWA — It looks like Prime Minister Stephen Harper has broken a campaign promise to maintain ACOA’s budget, although changes in the way figures are reported make it difficult to know by how much.

Since Mr. Harper’s election last year, the Tories have cut spending at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency by 16 per cent to $366 million in 2007-08 from $437 million in 2005-06.
The numbers for this year were revealed in the government’s main spending estimates, released in Ottawa on Tuesday.

A lot of that reduction is because of changes in the way government keeps track of spending, ACOA says.

On Tuesday, an official in Mr. Harper’s office referred questions about his promise to ACOA Minister Peter MacKay. His office denied that the budget has been reduced, saying that the main government estimates are not the same as the budget.

“I’m not going to answer on what the previous government did on its budgets,” communications director Dan Dugas said in an e-mail.

“The answer is that (the) ACOA budget has not changed. Estimates of spending, calculated today, do not have anything to do with the pot of money set aside. That pot is unchanged.”

ACOA spokesman Richard Gauthier said $38.3 million from last year’s estimates and $10.9 million from this year’s estimates are gone because they now appear under Infrastructure Canada, where there is no regional breakdown. So it is impossible to see if spending is going up or down.

Some spending is going down because old Liberal programs are coming to the end of their budgets, Mr. Gauthier said, and the Tories may announce similar programs in their budget next month.

Mr. Harper promised not to cut ACOA’s budget in January 2006 at the Delta Halifax in his main Nova Scotia campaign stop.

“We believe there’s an important role for ACOA, and we’ve been clear on what that is and we’re going to maintain the budget of ACOA,” Mr. Harper said.

Mr. Harper was previously a vociferous critic of ACOA, swearing when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance to cut it “dramatically and very rapidly,” saying that it contributes to a “culture of defeatism” in Atlantic Canada.

So when he announced on the campaign trail that he supported ACOA, the Liberals accused him of a mid-campaign flip-flop aimed at wooing skeptical Atlantic Canadians.

At that time, Joe McGuire, then the Liberal ACOA minister, said Atlantic Canadians ought to be suspicious of Mr. Harper’s promise.

“It’s a pretty big bite to chew on in the middle of an election campaign, as a brand spanking new policy on regional development agencies,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask people to believe.”
The real Mr. Harper was speaking in 2004, Mr. McGuire said in the lobby of the House of Commons on Tuesday.

“He told the truth about ACOA the previous election,” he said. “In the last election, he was misleading Atlantic Canadians.”

Mr. McGuire watches the announcements being made by ACOA and he said he is surprised at how little the Tories are spending.

“The Innovative Communities Fund is not being used,” he said.

“There’s almost two full years of money lapsed there, and on our trade missions, I think there’s a major cut there. There’s no community projects being announced. Four-fifths of the community projects that have been announced are ones that we had already signed off and announced ourselves. So they are announcing the openings. They are doing almost nothing themselves so far as the rural part of Atlantic Canada is concerned.”

At the same time as Mr. Harper promised to maintain ACOA’s budget, he promised to have the auditor general undertake a value-for-money review of ACOA’s spending. On Tuesday, neither the department, the minister’s office nor the auditor general’s office would say if such a review is under way.

The review is crucial, said Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a group that has often been critical of ACOA as wasteful and counterproductive.

“I guess I wish I could say that any cut to ACOA is a good idea, but until I know where the money’s gone, I guess I can’t react to any reports of cuts,” he said.