Hudson on the Hill
In case anyone was still wondering before Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it official Aug. 2 by asking Governor General David Johnston to dissolve the 41st Parliament, the campaign for the Oct. 19 general election has been going on ever since the Conservative Party of Canada turned its two parliamentary minorities into its first majority in May 2011.
This pre-campaign sort of peaked in September 2012 when Harper addressed his caucus shortly after the second session of the 41st Parliament ended a three-month recess. In a departure from tradition, the campaign-style caucus gathering was held in the Ottawa Convention Centre near Parliament Hill and featured large flags as a backdrop as well as a booming “Taking Care of Business”, the 1973 rock hit by Winnipeg supergroup Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
Taking care of business for any government means it will do whatever is necessary to ensure a continued mandate. Security at home and abroad has been, and will be, a key plank in the Conservative’s re-election platform. “We live in an uncertain world, indeed, a dangerous world,” the PM told his caucus. “The measure of good government, the true test of leadership, lies not in achieving success in times of stability and peace, but in doing so during times of risk and danger.”
The momentum of the unofficial campaign never slackened and in the weeks before the PM’s official announcement, the lid came off the pork barrel as the government flooded national and local media with announcements of an array of infrastructure projects involving Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) domestic assets.
(The term “pork barrel” took root after the American Civil War and within just a few years, references to “pork” were increasingly common in the US Congress, where representatives sponsored bills designed to benefit their constituents. In 1919, Chester Collins Maxey, who supervised a public service training school in the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, referred in the National Municipal Review, to “pork barrel bills” in Congress. He claimed that the phrase originated in a pre-Civil War practice of rewarding slaves with a barrel of pork for which they had to compete.)
It could be argued that the practice predates democracy itself as rulers and governments at all levels dispensed favours to pacify the populace and in the hope of ensuring continued support. Even so, pork-barrelling, which also involves companies and their employees is by any measure an odious practice. In effect, it amounts to bribing voters with their own tax dollars, perhaps especially so in the run-up to any election.
The latest round out of Ottawa is arguably the most brazen in recent Canadian politics. One unapologetic cabinet minister sported a shirt emblazoned with his party’s logo for an announcement he called “Christmas in July” – it had nothing to do defence but was telling about attitude.
It was a clear violation of prescribed norms. Treasury Board requires the civil service to inform about policies and programs “in an accountable, non-partisan fashion” and states that “institutions must not participate in, or lend support to, partisan events organized for political party purposes.”
As for the myriad defence-related infrastructure announcements, they can be traced back to the Prime Minister’s surprise announcement last November at a campaign-style event in London. The total projected outlay is $5.8 billion over three years,” he said, calling infrastructure the “cornerstone” of economic success. The main beneficiaries, he indicated, would be DND, the RCMP, shipyards, small-craft harbours, airports, rail service and federal laboratories, and the work would begin ”reasonably quickly.”
This was less than two weeks after Finance Minister Joe Oliver, in the government’s fall fiscal update, had disclosed that the promised 2015-2016 budget surplus would be substantially smaller than expected: $1.9 Billion instead of the $6.4B+ surplus set out in the 2014 budget. The revision was due mainly to a series of tax cuts the government subsequently announced, but Oliver insisted that the annual surplus going forward would rise steadily to $6.8B+ in 2018-2019 before nearly doubling to $13.1B the following year.
Oliver took the position that the various tax cuts, coupled with what he said was historically low government spending, left Canadians with a clear choice. “We trust Canadians to save and spend their hard-earned money better than all-knowing bureaucrats or social engineers,” he said. “Some people … don’t agree, but that is what elections are about.”
Within the funding announced by Harper, $490.5 million is earmarked for more than 80 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) repairs and upgrades. The need isn’t debatable, just the timing. The first announcements began trickling out in March, two totalling $58.8 million for improvements at Royal Canadian Air Force bases in Cold Lake and Winnipeg, including housing repairs. Three followed in May, a total of $3.24 million for a range of work, again including housing, at two Ontario bases, Borden and Petawawa, with a smaller amount for improvements to an armoury in Richmond, B.C.
June got off to a slow start with two announcements – upgrades to CAF Base Valcartier, Que., and a new Peace Support Training centre at CAF Base Kingston, Ont. as well as some improvements to the local armoury – but then the floodgates opened immediately after Parliament recessed for the summer.
By the end of July, the Department of National Defence had released a torrent of announcements about infrastructure projects across the country – at least in constituencies with Conservative representation in the House. Dozens of infrastructure-related projects were announced in that one month, and the total value had topped $375 million with announcements being rolled out right until the election was called. They ranged in value from $280,000 to $45.7 million. Over the next two years, more than $140 million will be spent on repairs and modernization of armouries alone. “By completing this work, DND will ultimately improve the efficiency and reduce maintenance costs,” the government said.
There’s no gainsaying those decisions because armouries scattered across the country are home to reserve units which have played an increasing role in CAF missions at home and abroad in recent years. Nor is there any denying that in the overall scheme of things, the amount is negligible and the need is long overdue in many cases.
In fact, it is refreshing to see the Canadian Armed Forces benefitting from these strategically-timed infrastructure grants. DND’s infrastructure across the country includes approximately 21,000 buildings, 2.25 million hectares of land, 5,500 kilometres of road and 3,000km of water, storm and sewer pipes. It obviously needs maintenance and repairs, but it’s simply the timing of this funding that smacks of political opportunism and, yes, reeks of the pork barrel as ministers, parliamentary secretaries and House of Commons backbenchers vie for the chance to lift the lid. Once off, it’s hard to put back – until the next election rolls around.
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To examine the complete summary of federal infrastructure programs that have been approved for DND projects, check the following web site: http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/business-infrastructure/projects.page
© FrontLine Defence 2015