Brian Underhill Ottawa Bureau

Ottawa – The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency was accused Tuesday of pre-election spending binges in Liberal ridings.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax think-tank, made the accusations in its second ACOA Watch, a publication examining the role of the regional development agency.

AIMS president Brian Lee Crowley called Tuesday for changes in ACOA operations and said there are more efficient ways to stimulate the Atlantic region’s economy.

“A lower federal tax burden in the region would be a far more effective stimulus to economic activity than ACOA’s regional economic development spending,” Mr. Crowley said.

It would also take the politics out of ACOA’s programs, he said.

AIMS based its assessment of ACOA spending patterns on a recent study by the C.D. Howe Institute, a (Toronto based) think-tank. That group found that much of the decision-making – involving the spending of millions of dollars – was politically motivated.

Spending is disproportionate in ridings held by government members and in “swing ridings,” those won with a narrow plurality, the institute said.

The study also concluded that since 1994, a year after the Chretien Liberals took office, spending in ridings held by members of the governing party is an average 40 per cent higher than in opposition ridings.

New ACOA Minister Joe McGuire, who took over the post last Friday, denied the allegations and said the AIMS report does not reflect what he’s seen as an MP from P.E.I. since 1988.

“I’ve never experienced that in my own situation,” he said.

“Projects are viewed on an individual basis from whatever constituency, from whatever province. Due diligence is made and decisions are made.”

Mr. McGuire said he’s never benefited from politically motivated spending.

“I know lots of times I would have preferred some project approvals and they never came, so I think they are pretty well hands-free as far as that motivation is concerned,” he said.

Mr. McGuire said his department is already developing new initiatives. He said this is not the result of criticism from groups like AIMS but from economic blueprints produced by the Liberal caucus in Atlantic Canada.

“The (Rising) Tide is out there and we’re discussing that, and we’ll come together with some aims and objectives that will be implemented in the future.”