Cabinet ministers Tony Clement and John Baird both say, in hindsight, they should have done things differently in awarding nearly $50-million to build sidewalks, gazebos and sports facilities in Mr. Clement’s riding as a nod to the legacy of the G8 summit.
Mr. Clement, the Treasury Board president, told a Commons committee on Wednesday that he should have let federal bureaucrats assess and select the best proposals from the hundreds submitted by mayors in Parry Sound-Muskoka, where the meeting of world leaders was held in 2010 at a Huntsville resort.
The job of narrowing the field was instead left to the municipal politicians, said Mr. Clement, who was industry minister when the money was handed out.
Mr. Baird, who is now Foreign Affairs minister but held the infrastructure portfolio in the years leading up to the summit, told the public accounts committee that he could have been more clear about how the money for G8 legacy projects in Muskoka came to be taken from a fund for border improvements.
In her final report, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser said last spring it is clear the Conservative government broke the rules by using the border fund in Muskoka and complained that there was no paperwork to determine how the hundreds of proposals were narrowed to 32.
Mr. Clement said the local mayors and officials in his riding were keen to take part in the legacy program when it was announced in 2008, and quickly came up with 242 proposals.
“I suggested that they, amongst themselves and with their councils, identify their top priorities, and based on their own judgment, weed out those proposals they considered of low need or outside federal jurisdiction,” he said. “…I offered my constituency office in Huntsville as a depository where proposals could be dropped off and from there forwarded to federal officials.”
Those proposals were submitted on forms created by the mayors. Mr. Clement sent 33 projects to Infrastructure Canada for review, and 32 were approved.
Mr. Clement said he agreed with Ms. Fraser’s analysis. “If I could reverse time and go back to that point,” he said, he would recommend that a paper process be followed.
And “in hindsight,” he said, “it may have been better for Infrastructure officials to review all 242 initial proposals and not simply encourage the local mayors to collaborate and focus their requests in the interest of efficiency and time.”
Mr. Baird said all 32 projects met the criteria of the program, but they arrived on his desk at a time when he said he was frustrated with the slow pace of approvals for grants.
The G8 projects had to be completed quickly because the meeting was approaching, he said, so officials in his department recommended using an existing fund rather than creating a new one, which would take additional time.
“The border infrastructure fund was topped up,” so the money was not diverted from border infrastructure, Mr. Baird said. But “in hindsight, the estimates could have included a line regarding the top-up of this fund.”
As for the approval of the projects, “the buck stopped with me, I made the decisions, I am responsible and I am accountable,” Mr. Baird said.
When asked after the committee meeting whether the public could be forgiven for questioning what sidewalks and gazebos in towns far from the Huntsville site had to do with the G8 meeting, Mr. Baird said one of the criteria of the legacy fund was to thank the region of Muskoka.
“No one is suggesting that a sidewalk that is 100 kilometres from the summit was to support the summit,” he said. “It was not. It was to thank the community and the municipalities in the region for supporting the project.”
And plenty of summit participants stayed more than 100 kilometres away, he added.
Mr. Clement held meetings with the municipal officials in his riding as early as 2008 to discuss the dispersion of the money. But he told the committee that this group “was not a decision-making body and never behaved in that capacity.”
The New Democrats allege that the money was a slush fund used by Mr. Clement to bolster his chances of being re-elected in 2008 election after winning the riding in 2006 by just 28 votes.
Charlie Angus, the NDP ethics critic, said after the committee that the big question is why Mr. Clement has been put in charge of the Treasury Board after the G8 spending issues in his riding.