Don Martin: Unleashing the auditor general on the invisible Liberal infrastructure plan
The Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill, Friday Dec. 4, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Back in the gloom of the 2009 recession, they were everywhere.
Blue and green signs blanketed the countryside, proclaiming Conservative government emergency spending on everything from highways to hiking trails stretching from the eastern tip of Cape Spear to the pounding surf of Tofino, B.C.
They were backed by a television commercial blitz which had viewers rolling their eyes at what was clearly a Conservative aren’t-we-wonderful propaganda push.
But for all that questionable self-promotional spending, there was no mistaking a rollout of $40 billion in infrastructure spending was underway and that there were shovels behind most of the signs to prove the funds were buying jobs. Even the auditor general of the day was impressed.
There is no similar indication today’s muddled Liberal version of the action plan is delivering a big economic bang for all those deep deficit dollars.
That’s partly why the opposition parties united Wednesday to ask the auditor general to examine the $188 billion pledged to keep Canada’s already-healthy economy humming.
The only opponent to that push for greater transparency was, to nobody’s surprise, the Liberal side of the Commons.
Now, one action plan isn’t quite like the other.
There was a bonafide sense of an economic emergency ten years ago that mobilized motivation at all levels to get dollars in active circulation.
Today’s hostile provincial premiers may be disinclined to go deeper into deficit to partner with a signature Liberal program or they’re merely taking the federal cash and cutting their contribution to projects already on the books.
And unlike 2010 or 2011, this program’s fundamental flaw is trying to force-feed stimulus into an economy where the construction sector is almost fully employed. It’s hard to get idle shovels breaking new ground if they’re already working.
Sure, light rail lines in Calgary and Vancouver got a welcome boost, but a big chunk of the money is still sloshing around in unallocated budgets across dozens of departments waiting for a funding partner to sign on or a federal bureaucrat to sign off.
The government’s own website gives few details at what is going where and how much.
If indeed the Liberal plan is stimulating economic growth, and there were statistics showing it didn’t do much in easing the 2009 recession, the government should be shouting it from the Peace Tower.
If there are holdups to project kickstarts beyond the government’s control, it should be transparent about that as well.
But the fact signs of activity don’t exist is proof an independent authority like the auditor general needs to give the real impact of this massive borrowing binge a closer and clearer look.