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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Conservatives fish for votes with local spending spree Add to ...

It’s been a banner week for users of small ports. From Cortes Island in British Columbia to Caribou, N.S., cabinet ministers and MPs from the Harper government were demonstrating their belief that all politics is local.

Across Canada, Conservatives fanned out to announce money for small-craft harbours and ferry docks. Tuesday and Wednesday, they made 17 announcements in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia about spending commitments or government assistance of some kind. Seven more announcements were made Thursday.

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There was nothing unusual about such announcements. Every summer, when Parliament is in recess, the Harper government sends its ministers and MPs to spread money all over Canada, usually in small bits directed at specific projects.

This year, Fisheries Canada will spend $63-million at “core fishing harbours,” to finance more than 100 projects. Conservatives want their ministers and MPs to be associated with this spending, either by being physically present or via press releases.

Taking political credit for repairing small harbours and docks is a time-honoured political tradition in coastal Canada. The Liberals and Progressive Conservatives before them did the same thing, the difference being the almost manic attention that the Harper government devotes to organizing and publicizing so many events.

This week, in addition to the harbours and ports, there was help for the canola industry, infrastructure, aerospace, defence research and increasing western Canadian exports. With so many events – hundreds of them all summer – the organizational work and time required to pull them off is mind-boggling. Atop this foundation of small announcements is the string of spending commitments made by the Prime Minister as he moves around the country.

Governments of all stripes have been doing similar things for a long time. Apart from the focus on so many organizational details, what’s instructive about these particular summer spendfests is that they come from a government supposedly all about shrinking the size of government, eliminating the deficit, cutting programs, retiring civil servants and otherwise being tight-fisted with the public purse.

This ideology is all well and good at a high level of abstraction, but what the summer spending spree shows is that even Conservatives believe that retail politics revolves around spending, the presumption being that more votes are found in saying yes than no.

Once again, there is nothing original in that observation, but that it should apply so forcefully to a government whose ideological prescriptions would suggest otherwise is worth noting.

You might think that among the red-meat Conservatives on the back bench, the kind who fulminate regularly about excessive government and deficits, this sort of government behaviour would be condemned. Indeed, each summer, there are many fewer similar announcements in Alberta, because there are Conservative MPs there for whom the expenditures are not welcome, either by them or their supporters.

Elsewhere, however, it would seem that Conservative MPs welcome the announcements and the local exposure that accompanies them. Nor do ministers shy away from the limelight.

Take Justice Minister Peter MacKay. He was in Dartmouth, N.S., in the early afternoon for an announcement about “market-leading defence research and development.” In the morning, he was in Caribou, N.S., where the ferry connects to PEI, presiding over another announcement about harbour improvements. A national minister with an important portfolio, Mr. MacKay is also regional minister for the province and a local MP. Hence the dual announcements.

All these funding commitments co-exist within a government that is ending programs for science (see the end of federal involvement in the Experimental Lakes project in Northwestern Ontario), slicing foreign aid, cutting the CBC, reducing embassy staffs abroad, making a hash of the defence budget and so on.

These trimmed projects and personnel, however, are not terribly local. The government prizes programs that can be used for maximum local public-relations impact. As do voters, apparently – at least so the Conservatives believe.

The funny thing is that despite these summer spendfests, with their huge organizational tail, polls suggest the government is appreciably less popular than when last elected.

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