Facing the possibility of an election over a bare-bones budget light on new spending, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his MPs spent Thursday sprinkling lumber towns with federal cash set aside more than a year-and-a-half ago.
After an unprecedented two-year frenzy of stimulus spending, the opportunities for such feel-good local announcements are drying up.
Thursday’s announcements – totalling $278-million and spanning four provinces – come from a largely exhausted $1-billion Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Program launched in June, 2009, as a counter to American subsidies.
The next opportunity for an election will come following the release of the 2011 budget, but the Harper government plans to keep Canadians guessing for a few more weeks before announcing when that release will be.
Mr. Harper told reporters Thursday that the budget date won’t be announced until Jan. 31, or shortly thereafter. That’s the date members of Parliament are scheduled to return to Ottawa. NDP MP Tom Mulcair said the timing of the government’s spending announcements suggests Conservatives are thinking about a possible campaign.
“When you see the PM hopping around handing out money like he did [Thursday] in Windsor, Que., at the Domtar plant, you know they’re at least warming up the engines of the campaign jet,” he said.
Mr. Harper insists that’s not the case and that Canadians do not want an election. Yet his prepared remarks would not have been out of place on the campaign trail.
“Our government believes that people living in the regions, the so-called rural areas of our country such as the Eastern Townships, should have the opportunity of finding work in their region, the opportunity of raising their family there, the opportunity of thriving there,” he said. “Our country is very big and we should not limit its development by reserving all opportunities to only a few big cities.”
The fund to improve the environmental performance of pulp and paper mills was created in an attempt to counter U.S. “black liquor” subsidies without triggering another softwood lumber trade dispute.
Avrim Lazar, president and chief executive officer of the Forest Products Association of Canada, said the program was “brilliantly designed” and is helping to continue the industry’s move toward stronger environmental standards.
However, Mr. Lazar said now that the fund is largely depleted, Canadian firms are still competing against European and American subsidies. “There’s still a need for government support,” he said.
In addition to the Quebec announcement, Conservative MPs announced federal funding in New Brunswick for two Irving facilities and a Twin Rivers Paper Co. mill; in Alberta for Alberta Pacific Forest Industries Inc.; and in B.C. supporting the Cariboo Pulp and Paper Co., a Domtar plant in Kamloops and a facility in Prince George.