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Politics With federal budget out, expect torrent of pre-election novelty cheques

The Canada 150 Infrastructure Program is the rare budget item that comes without a price tag and Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s office was unable to provide one on Wednesday. Nor were there any available examples of what sort of projects will be funded.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

It has the makings of a no-gazebo-left-behind tour.

Passing mostly unnoticed when Finance Minister Joe Oliver unveiled his budget on Tuesday was the promise of a new fund for projects celebrating the country's upcoming sesquicentennial. Dubbed the Canada 150 Infrastructure Program, it is to "support the renovation, expansion and improvement of existing community infrastructure in all regions of the country" with "projects that celebrate our shared heritage, create jobs and improve the quality of life of Canadians."

Details on what exactly the program will entail are unusually vague. It is the rare budget item that comes without a price tag and Mr. Oliver's office was unable to provide one on Wednesday. Nor were there any available examples of what sort of projects will be funded.

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But with a spokesperson for the Finance Minister promising that it will be "rolled out quite quickly," with announcements that include specific dollar figures coming in the months ahead, the program appears tailor-made for the time-honoured tradition of pre-election pork-barrelling – allowing government MPs to spend the summer months currying favour with their constituents by turning up with novelty cheques for new local expenditures.

There are mixed views on just how much impact such efforts have. On Wednesday, for instance, a veteran of Conservative campaigns dismissed them as "things that are done because that is how they have always been done," more than because they have been proven to make the path to re-election much easier.

Another Conservative who has also worked in a senior capacity on Stephen Harper's election efforts, though, was more bullish. "An MP can go into his or her riding and make a small funding announcement and get very good local coverage – which is consumed at a much higher rate than national coverage – and monopolize it," he said. "And although they're small-calibre, these announcements are usually more relevant than national announcements, which can be an abstraction to people."

It's safe to say the latter perspective has generally prevailed among Mr. Harper's Conservatives. It was most famously epitomized by the tens of millions of dollars nominally tied to the 2010 Group of Eight summit that were spent on legacy projects (a gazebo famously among them) in parts of cabinet minister Tony Clement's riding that visiting world leaders would never see. While that was an extreme example, the run-up to the 2011 election saw infrastructure projects that were meant to be part of postrecession stimulus disproportionately awarded to Conservative-held ridings.

Notwithstanding when they go completely overboard, as in Mr. Clement's case, such sprees put the opposition parties in a bit of a bind. Local candidates hardly want to be seen as opposing nice things for their ridings and even broadly criticizing the government for politicizing funds disbursement can be risky. Some Tories privately contend that the Liberals did them a favour before the previous election, when they publicly highlighted that it paid to be in a Conservative-held riding.

So in recent summers, even when an election hasn't been imminent and there hasn't been an excuse as compelling as economic recovery, Conservative MPs have still made hundreds of local funding announcements – a fishing tournament here, an upgrade to a sports facility there – with little political downside.

It will surprise nobody if those are ramped up in the immediate run-up to the coming campaign. For larger-ticket infrastructure announcements, the government still has plenty of funds left to be allotted in its $5.3-billion annual New Building Canada Plan; for the more numerous smaller ones, it seems, there is Canada 150.

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For the Tories, the biggest impediment may be turnaround time. While the election is set for Oct. 19, some advantages afforded by election-spending rules (mostly that they limit third-party advertising, of the sort that anti-Conservative unions intend to spend millions on) may prompt Mr. Harper to start the official campaign period sometime before Labour Day. If that's the case, the weeks after Parliament rises in June may set a record for the clip at which the cheques are handed out.

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