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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Vancouver Canuck Trevor Linden react while watching the Vancouver Canucks take on the Minnesota Wild in Vancouver, British Columbia March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Ben Nelms (BEN NELMS)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Vancouver Canuck Trevor Linden react while watching the Vancouver Canucks take on the Minnesota Wild in Vancouver, British Columbia March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Ben Nelms (BEN NELMS)

Harper defends decision not to fund Quebec arena Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Quebec City and vigorously defended his decision not to fund a new hockey arena.

After playing coy for months, the Prime Minister emphatically came out Wednesday against arena funding.

Mr. Harper called it the right thing to do — and said most Canadians agree that funding professional sports venues is a bad idea.

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The Prime Minister said his government would instead fund new infrastructure in Quebec City, including an expansion of the local airport.

Mr. Harper's trip was designed to turn the page on a bruising debate and neutralize what has been a sensitive political subject.

Quebec City is strategically important to his Conservatives and the popular local mayor has fumed against the governing party.

Mayor Regis Labeaume has accused the Tories of undermining the project, dragging out a decision for months after their local MPs raised hopes by wearing vintage Quebec Nordiques jerseys to a photo op.

But the Prime Minister argued his case Wednesday that residents should still vote for his party, despite the arena decision.

“We looked at all the precedents. The federal government simply does not and has not historically been a significant funder of sports stadiums,” Mr. Harper told a news conference at the airport.

“There is not a desire to change that across the country. In fact, there is a lot of opposition to it.

“So, look, I understand people are disappointed with the decision. But I think we have a pretty good record here to run on. This city has never had the kind of influence and the kind of attention it's had from the federal government since it's had this Conservative team.”

That message is designed to blunt what will surely be the Bloc Quebecois' theme during the campaign: that Mr. Harper's Quebec City MPs are powerless, having failed to deliver on the high-profile issue.

But the Prime Minister says that in a period of increasing budgetary restraint, there is little desire across the land for taxpayers' money going to pro sports facilities. He said the Conservative caucus discussed the issue extensively and agrees with the decision, and so do most Canadians.

And he hopes that Quebec City, with its centre-right political leanings, will come to agree with him, too.

Mr. Harper noted that Quebeckers are the most-taxed people in North America and he said they want their federal dollars spent wisely.

“We will not spend taxpayers' money on a professional sports arena or stadium in Quebec City. And we will not participate in such projects in Regina, Halifax, Edmonton, or my hometown, Calgary,” he said.

“You either fund them all — or you don't fund any. We aren't financing the one here, and the same treatment will be applied equally across the country. . .

“There will be no double-standard.”

The Prime Minister's toughened tone comes just days after his government made it clear that — despite months of anticipation — it would not get involved in the local arena project.

It also comes after Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff mused over the weekend that his party might still fund the arena.

With his rhetorical shift Wednesday, the Prime Minister appeared to be trying to unburden himself of the arena debate and leave his opponent Mr. Ignatieff to deal with it.

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