The federal government has funnelled 83 per cent of the projects under its signature infrastructure fund to Conservative-held ridings, according to an analysis by The Globe and Mail of the announcements made to date.
The New Building Canada Fund was first announced in the 2013 budget, but it has only been within the past few weeks – on the eve of the federal election campaign – that specific announcements have started to flow at a steady pace.
Worth $14-billion over 10 years, the fund is the Conservative government’s primary infrastructure program, and it is frequently cited by federal ministers in response to concerns that Canada faces a deep infrastructure deficit.
As of Monday afternoon, the government had announced 113 projects that are contained within individual ridings. Ninety-four of those projects – or 83 per cent – are in Conservative-held ridings. Measured in dollar terms, Conservative ridings have received 66 per cent of the $630-million awarded to those projects.
Four additional large projects worth $892-million combined have also been announced but are not included in the riding analysis because they affect various ridings and political parties. They include light-rail expansion in Edmonton, the Scarborough subway extension in Toronto, a major water-treatment upgrade in Ottawa and a highway project in Nova Scotia.
The heavy tilt to date in favour of Conservative-held ridings is prompting criticism that the government is placing short-term politics ahead of the country’s most pressing infrastructure needs.
Federal Industry Minister Denis Lebel defends the funding announcements by arguing that every project announced to date – except for a university expansion in Oshawa and the Scarborough subway-line expansion – were selected from lists submitted by provinces.
The minister’s office did not respond when asked if it is deliberately selecting projects from the provincial lists based on whether they are in Conservative ridings.
This Globe and Mail analysis follows its investigation into a smaller program, the Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund, which ran from 2012 to 2014 and directed $150-million to fixing up arenas, community centres and parks. That infrastructure fund was spent one-and-a-half times more in Conservative ridings than opposition seats, a Globe analysis found. The fund was replicated in this year’s budget, and new money under that program is also set to roll out over the next few months.
Since MPs left Parliament Hill in June, Conservative MPs have often made multiple announcements a day, doling out cash from the New Building Canada Fund for everything from road improvements to sewer upgrades and expansion projects on postsecondary campuses.
With 159 MPs, the Conservative Party currently holds 52 per cent of the 308 ridings in the country. The total number of ridings represented in the House of Commons will increase to 338 for the October election.
Slightly more than $1.5-billion of the $14-billion New Building Canada Fund has so far been allocated to specific projects.
The high percentage of projects being announced in Tory ridings can partly be explained by the fact that most of the announcements to date have come from a subsection called the Small Communities Fund. That section is worth $1-billion over 10 years and can go only to communities with populations under 100,000.
The Conservative Party has generally had more success than other parties in winning rural ridings, particularly in Western Canada and Ontario. The program has also been particularly slow to roll out in Quebec, which is home to many rural ridings held by the opposition NDP.
A closer look at the announcements shows that of the 94 projects in Conservative ridings, 21 of them are in ridings where the incumbent Conservative MP is not seeking re-election.
Doling out pre-election funding is not new to the Canadian political scene. Université de Moncton professor Donald Savoie, whose book What is Government Good At? will be released in September, said pork-barrel politics has gone on for decades, regardless of which party is in power.
Dr. Savoie said the practice fuels public cynicism of politicians and gives the impression that delivering cash for the riding is more important for MPs than performing their duties on Parliament Hill to review legislation and government spending.
“[MPs] are judged on how much they’ve been able to bring home the bacon, and it skews public spending in the sense that areas and sectors [where it] may be much wiser investments to put public money there lose out to an MP being able to bring the bacon home,” he said. “It’s not rational politics, it’s partisan politics.”
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story stated a book called What is Government Good At? by Donald Savoie was recently released. In fact, the book will be released in September. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error