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Business Commentary Tories, Liberals trip over each other in hunt for Quebec votes

It takes chutzpah to accuse your political opponent of “cynical electioneering” while blatantly trying to buy votes yourself.

Then again, ‘tis the season of pandering with the October federal election looming.

Take the case of the federal government’s national shipbuilding strategy, a decades-long effort to replace and refurbish federal vessels at an estimated cost of up to $70-billion.

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As part of this plan, The Globe and Mail’s Daniel Leblanc reported this week that the Liberal government will award a third of a $1.5-billion contract to maintain the navy’s 12 patrol frigates to Quebec’s Davie shipyard. The rest of the work is going to the Irving shipyard in Halifax and Seaspan in Vancouver.

The Davie shipyard, near Quebec City, is located in a Conservative-held riding and sits in the middle of a cluster of 11 vital seats the Tories hold in the province.

The logical and most cost-effective thing for the government would be to have one or perhaps two shipyards do the work. Instead, the Liberals will split the work three ways, giving a share of the work to Quebec, where they are counting on picking up valuable seats – including some held by the Conservatives.

That prompted Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to blast Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government for swooping in “at the final hour, right before an election to buy people’s votes.” He called it “cynical electioneering.”

Oddly, though, Mr. Scheer is not promising that the Conservatives would do things much differently. Instead, he suggested a Conservative government would also engage in pork-barrel politics by continuing to reward the Quebec shipyard, which has been in and out of financial trouble over the years, with a steady stream of federal contracts, including for a new navy supply ship.

“Canada’s Conservatives have championed the hard-working women and men at the Davie shipyard since day one,” Mr. Scheer insisted.

Are the Liberals trying to buy votes? Almost certainly. They have 40 seats in Quebec. If they have a hope of staying in power, they’ll need to pick up several more in the province to offset probable losses in Ontario and elsewhere. Not awarding the work to Davie would be a liability.

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Mr. Scheer is also in the vote-buying business. That, unfortunately, is how elections are fought.

And it’s not just about shipbuilding.

Also this week, Mr. Scheer attacked the Liberals for not getting nearly $4-billion in promised compensation to dairy, egg and chicken farmers out the door fast enough. The money is to offset concessions made in recent trade agreements with Europe and several Pacific Rim countries – deals that will open the Canadian market to more imported milk, cheese and the like.

A Conservative government “would never back down from defending the [dairy] sector,” Mr. Scheer promised members of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, meeting in Saskatoon.

It’s not that the Liberals are balking at paying. They’re just not doing it fast enough, which Mr. Scheer says makes them guilty of dissing farmers.

Quebec is home to nearly half the country’s 11,000 dairy farms. Over the years, none of the major political parties have demonstrated the backbone to dismantle the tightly regulated supply-management system that guarantees stable incomes for farmers, keeps dairy and poultry from moving freely across provincial borders and infuriates trading partners. The system also happens to inflate the cost of some key grocery basics.

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A Conservative leader should feel a tad awkward about coddling this unabashedly non-market corner of the economy. Not Mr. Scheer, and certainly not now.

The Conservatives’ Quebec seats cover a band of the province where dairy farming is a big part of the economy. Call it vote buying or currying favour, but Mr. Scheer’s fortunes in Quebec depend on keeping the dairy lobby happy. And so he does.

The Liberals will, of course, show farmers the money before the election. Indeed, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau committed this week to unveiling details of the package before the end of their mandate.

Next in line for government handouts may be pork farmers, who have been hit by China’s recent move to suspend imports.

Across the country, party strategists are making similar political calculations – with your money. Apparently, now is not the time to talk about principled, but unpopular policies. It’s the giving season.

And on that, both major parties agree.

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