In defence of (some) Conservative stimulus

25Oct09

Once the media pile-on began and outlet after outlet conducted independent analyses, the federal Conservatives had no chance. Whenever the official opposition Liberals (and presumably the NDP and Bloc Quebecois) join forces with any number of regional and national media to spread a message, that message will win the day. No question.

The message is: The Tories directed the vast majority of Canada’s Economic Action Plan™ stimulus to Conservative ridings for partisan gain.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is based on a false premise — that is, the Tories weren’t the only folks involved in doling out dollars. All of the analyses released by media largely ignore that much of the economic stimulus was pledged in concert with the provinces. In other words, provinces and municipalities (Ottawa, for example) created priority lists for their ready-to-go projects.

Because I’ve reported on the Knowledge Infrastructure Program for University Affairs, I’ll use it to illustrate this point. Universities and provinces were asked to create priority lists. One of the criteria for eligibility asked institutions to describe “how the proposed project contributes to the priorities identified in the federal government’s Science and Technology Strategy,” but this was not a partisan initiative.

In an interview for University Affairs, Science minister Gary Goodyear told me just how his government went about picking projects for the Knowledge Infrastructure program.

We wrote to all of the universities and colleges to introduce the program to them. We wrote to all of our provincial counterparts to do exactly the same thing. We asked all the universities and colleges to send a copy of their proposal to us, as well as their provincial counterparts. The message to the provinces was: you know your territory well, you know the theme for your particular province or territory, so prioritize the projects that you get in and give us a list of your priorities.

Indeed, when schools were putting together their priorities, they considered their standing not just with the federal government’s priorities, but also their provincial governments.

For example, this is what former McMaster University president Peter George told me in an interview for University Affairs:

There is certainly no indication whatsoever that the federal government is interested in any sense of pro rata allocation or entitlement. They see this as a competitive process and the best project for an individual university is one that the province says is a number one priority and the university agrees is a number one priority. For the feds, I think that makes the decision relatively easy.

St. Francis Xavier University president Sean Riley said this in an interview for the same story:

I think there will be a tendency for the money to follow research funding generally, so that where you see a fairly intensive cluster of research activity, you’ll tend to see a fairly intensive cluster of where the funding will end up.

Does that mean that partisan politics? I don’t really think so, directly. But it will mean that there will be a lot of horse-trading between the federal government and the provincial governments, where the province is matching the funding.

I think the political interaction will be between the federal government and the provincial governments, and that will play out in a patchwork of ways across the country.

While Riley didn’t deny that federal decision-makers might overrule their provincial counterparts, he certainly did put a lot of stock in his province’s ability to deliver for Nova Scotia’s universities. One look at how the federal government responded to the priorities of the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents proves that those priorities weren’t ignored.

David Akin files a story about this for a much larger audience. In his piece, he makes one salient point ignored by other media: “What is becoming clear, however, is the difficulty citizens, journalists, municipalities and others are having in learning how billions of dollars in federal infrastructure grants are being spent.”

UPDATE: This is how the government explained their plan for funding KIP projects (emphasis mine):

Provincial and territorial governments have been asked to identify their priorities for infrastructure investments in post-secondary education institutions. The federal government will not only ensure that funding is awarded to top priority projects, but will extend the benefits that the investments provide for Canadians. To that end, the maximum share of funding from all federal sources is 50% of total eligible costs. The projects require investments from partners, such as the post-secondary institutions themselves, provincial or territorial governments, the charitable sector, the private sector, or others, as appropriate. The exception is for projects at institutions accredited by a First Nations government or the Government of Canada, where up to 100% of project funding may be provided by the Government of Canada.

There is some spin in there, but the idea is that provincial and institutional prority lists were considered and honoured by the federal government.

MORE DEFENCE: The Globe‘s Jane Taber points to a letter to the editor written by current Mississauga city councillor and former Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish. In that letter, Taber says, was this (emphasis mine):

Ms. Parrish says that Mississauga is receiving a huge amount of dollars from various stimulus programs and it was city staff, not federal and provincial politicians, who decided which projects to fund. So there! “The feds and the province decided how much we’d get. Council decided where it would be spent. And we are grateful for that autonomy”…

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2 Responses to “In defence of (some) Conservative stimulus”

  1. This was a great read Nick, good to see that some actual journalism still exists out there. I been somewhat following this story, but were these details missed in the or ignored in the original press stories? Seems like something the Conservative would want to point out when they were getting the landslide of negative PR.

  2. The ISF isn’t even about stimulating the economy anymore. If you read all the coverage, it’s become so politicized that it’s just one long election campaign. People should stop worrying about which ridings got which projects and focus on the fact that we’re expecting long-term planning and funding from a government with a shelf-life of a few years at best.


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