While Americans were enjoying their Fourth of July holiday, Stephen Harper’s ministers were busy doing what they, and most politicians, like more than anything: making spending announcements.
No matter that this government is cutting $5-billion from government spending. No matter that programs are being cut or reduced throughout government. No matter that out of one side of their mouths Harper ministers proclaim the virtues of frugality, because from the other come announcements, followed by more announcements, of more spending.
On Wednesday, from Pasadena, Nfld., to Abram Village, PEI, from Waterloo, Ont., to Winnipeg, ministers dive-bombed communities dropping money on them or, as the government prefers to call these events, “making announcements.”
Thirteen ministers were spreading money around, some of them at two events. Denis Lebel, Minister of Transport, was announcing money for John Lewis Industries in La Tuque, Que., at 10 a.m., then hurried along to Saint-Irénée to dump money into Le Domaine Forget de Charlevoix. Gail Shea, Minister of National Revenue and Prince Edward Island’s cabinet representative, was in Abram Village, PEI, at 10 a.m., then at Coleman, PEI, at 2:30 p.m.
Ministers were at such places as Martin’s Family Fruit Farm in Waterloo; the Town of Blue Mountains; Minto, N.B.; Plum Point, Nfld.; Fredericton. Tough as times supposedly are for the federal government, Gary Goodyear, the Minister for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (an agency created by the Harper government), was announcing a new fund for Southern Ontario businesses.
On Thursday, nine ministers resumed the dive-bombing, making announcements everywhere from Kenaston, Sask., to Saint-Quentin, N.B. Mr. Lebel, scarcely recovered from his previous day’s exertions, was in La Pocatière, Que.
And Treasury Board President Tony Clement, he of G8 spending fame in Muskoka and the one driving the spending cuts, was in Bracebridge for an “announcement.”
Organizing this sort of co-ordinated ministerial dive-bombing cannot be easy. Think about the effort and energy involved.
You need tons of staff time at the heart of the government – the Prime Minister’s Office. You need lots of work by ministerial staff. You’ve got to find money and programs to announce, or reannounce. You’ve got to assemble the audiences as props. You’ve got to find places to spend the money, and make the announcements.
Local media must be informed. Conservative MPs have to be knitted into the announcements. Speeches must be written, documents prepared. And the whole exercise, involving about a third of the cabinet, has to happen at appointed times on the same day across the country.
Apart from the mixed-messaging of touting spending while preaching restraint, there is something splendidly revealing about what really excites this government and focuses its attention.
Politics is more than anything being seen to be doing something for communities and regions and the people who live there – and doing something invariably means spending government money.
Presumably – and the government is not wrong in this presumption – the people they wish to impress, namely us, prefer spending to restraint or implausibly want both at the same time.
This desire to impress is among the reasons why for the past 45 years, federal governments have run deficits in 33 years and surpluses in 12. (There were obviously other factors such as economic downturns.)
In the 16 years that Conservatives have been in office since 1963, they have run just two surpluses – the first two years of the Harper government. These surpluses were inherited from the Paul Martin government that, together with the previous Chrétien government, ran nine consecutive years of surpluses.
The Harperites took a $13.8-billion surplus inherited from the Martin government and made it a $5.8-billion deficit in 2008. Since then, the Harperites have presided over $111-billion in deficits.
This record does not suggest a government fixated on frugality, which after all just gets people mad when programs are cut or services are reduced.
Better, politically, to have days such as the glorious fourth and fifth of July when the lucky folks of Ontario’s apple industry, seniors in Plum Point, Nfld., workers at Trout River Industries of PEI, the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes, among other groups, saw politicians, even of the Harper variety, spending, and being seen to spend.
Clarification: Treasury Board President Tony Clement was in Bracebridge, Ont., for a completion ceremony of a seniors housing complex. Incomplete information appeared in an earlier version of this story.