April 10, 2019

Infrastructure funding is being being spent free from political considerations, says Infrastructure and Communities Minister François-Philippe Champagne, but his Conservative critic says money is going to where Liberals want votes in October.

“I often say when you look at infrastructure, this is not about politics,” Mr. Champagne (Saint Maurice–Champlain, Que.) told The Hill Times on April 8. “We’re not in election mode, we’re in ambition mode.”

Concerns funding decisions were made with political interests in mind were raised following the announcement that the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) had given a $1.28-billion loan for a Montreal electric rail project that will allow for the federal government to spend the money it had anticipated to go to the project from its infrastructure program, elsewhere in Quebec.

When the CIB was launched, the Liberal government mentioned the project as a potential investment.

The government launched one of the largest infrastructure projects in Canada’s history in the 2016 budget, following an election promise of large investment in Canada’s infrastructure system. The plan, more than $180-billion spread across 12 years, has had a rocky start as delays and concerns about its impact persist.

James McKellar, real estate and infrastructure professor at York University, said there were “probably” political interests in play in the light rail project and questioned if it could have happened in another province, saying he was unsure if the same loan would be available if Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford wanted to finance a similar transportation project. The Liberals hold 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats in the House of Commons.

He added that the federal infrastructure plan doesn’t have many “indicators of success.”

Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend, Alta.), his party’s infrastructure critic, said when the government promised $43-billion in investment last summer most of it was targeted at Liberal-held ridings in Eastern Canada.

“You could argue that is coincidence” in an election year that “suddenly there’s $43-billion in spending across ridings that the Liberals need to hang on to or gain in—to me that’s a little suspect,” Mr. Jeneroux said. He added that in Edmonton there are much-needed upgrades to a road in his riding, but it was an overpass in the neighbouring riding of Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton Mill Woods, Alta.) that was funded.

“Listen, I have about 4,700 projects across Canada. My mission is to make sure that we get rolling as quickly as possible,” Mr. Champagne said. “And trust me, as soon as I can get a project out the door, I do it, because when you have 4,700 projects, the only thing you want is to make sure that things are rolling.”

He cited Alberta investments in Calgary’s BMO Centre and the Springbank dam, as well his work with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson.

“I would say [with] infrastructure, there’s very little about politics with it,” Mr. Champagne said.

Mr. Jeneroux said much of the funding to Alberta was part of the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund in response to the Fort McMurray wildfires, and he said that is a one-time contribution.

Vicki-May Hamm, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), said her association wasn’t concerned with allegations of political interests playing a role in funding.

“Then again, we are all in politics, and we all know how this works,” Ms. Hamm, a Quebec mayor, said. “There are certain times in the year where you get more projects done, and that’s the way politics work.”

She added that the work that FCM is doing on the Hill is working, more so than the impact of political interests.

NDP MP Brigitte Sansoucy (Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot, Que.), her party’s infrastructure critic, said in an email, “We need to ensure that infrastructure projects actually meet the Canadian public’s infrastructure needs and not the private sector for their revenue generating potential, nor the friends of the Liberal Party.”

Ms. Sansoucy added the infrastructure plan isn’t generating the desired economic impacts that the Liberals have promised.

Mr. Champagne said the plan is projected to lead to about 100,000 jobs.

An August Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) report found that the infrastructure plan had led to between a 0.13 and 0.16 per cent of increase in Canada’s GDP in he 2017-18 fiscal year. The government had predicted it would be 0.4 per cent when it announced the plan.

Another PBO report in March found that the plan was leading to reduced capital investments by provinces. The report said that capital spending was $3.8-billion lower than it would be if the federal infrastructure plan was not place.

“What’s happened with this infrastructure plan [is] they’ve come in without any criteria in place, and say ‘we’re going to throw money at this,’ so the provinces said… ‘we’ll just use our money elsewhere,’” Mr. Jeneroux said.

He also said it was concerning that more funding hasn’t been allocated in the plan.

“To see that 13 per cent [has been spent], speaks volumes to the problems and the failures they had on infrastructure,” Mr. Jeneroux said.

Mr. Jeneroux said the Conservative infrastructure platform will be released before the next election.

Prof. McKellar said that successive federal governments have lacked vision of what they want their infrastructure programs to accomplish.

“It’s not about just building roads, hospitals, and pipelines,” he said. “It’s also about how do we strengthen the very things that undermine our economy, and that’s where I don’t think the discussion has evolved to, it always comes down to projects.”

He added: “I don’t think the government has much experience standing back and thinking strategically about the kind of infrastructure we need to strengthen the country.”

Mr. Champagne said the Liberal government has been playing “catch-up” after 10 years of underinvestment in Canadian infrastructure with the first phase of its infrastructure plan, but in the second phase, it is looking long term.

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