Justin Trudeau has vowed to spend $51.1 billion on infrastructure over the next ten years. Allan Freeman writes that, before a penny is spent, some pretty serious strategic thinking needs to be done. Such thinking was not a hallmark of the last government:
Back in 2009, when the global financial crisis provoked a rapid drop in economic activity, infrastructure spending was a big component of the Conservative government’s Economic Action Plan. The theme at the time, repeated ad nauseam by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, was “shovels in the ground.” The idea was to get work going as quickly as possible on infrastructure projects to provide much-needed economic stimulus. Projects, he kept on saying, were to be “timely, targeted and temporary.”
Another phrase Flaherty repeated a lot in 2009 was “use it or lose it.” Provinces and municipalities were warned that if they didn’t get the excavators digging and the concrete pouring by March 31, 2011, the promised cash would be clawed back by Ottawa. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way.
What it boiled down to was pork:
The Harper Tories discovered that Keynesian economics and big deficits provided fabulous opportunities for local infrastructure projects — otherwise known as “pork”. In total, 7,000 provincial, territorial and municipal infrastructure projects were greenlighted under the Economic Action Plan, leading to the construction of hockey rinks, day-care centres and small-craft harbours. They were great projects for politicians looking to pose for local media at ribbon-cuttings — but they had little or no strategic impact on the economy.
Like everything the Harperites did, it added up to vote buying. What we need, writes Freeman is strategic investment in the economy:
If infrastructure investment is supposed to bring transformational change this time around, the new government should think long and hard about the impact of projects — and make choices. Instead of shelling out $20 million each on five regional centres to study climate change — a typical Canadian response that would respond to the requirements of politics — why not concentrate efforts on one national centre and spend the $100 million in one place, where it can have significant impact?
Let’s think strategically, even if that means concentrating funding on projects that necessarily will be geographically limited, like high-speed rail in the Toronto-Montreal corridor. Even if it means some ridings will get less cash, and backbenchers will enjoy fewer opportunities to hand over enormous novelty cheques.
The new government has to think beyond the next election.