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Jeffrey Simpson

$21.6-million for Quebec City's airport? So much for restraint Add to ...

There's an old joke in Quebec that, if someone in Quebec City dies and goes to heaven, he or she has to change planes in Montreal. The joke speaks to the obvious: Montreal is the economic and transportation fulcrum of the province, especially for air travel. It's closer to the U.S. border, closer to North America's population centres and, of course, has a population many times greater than Quebec City's.

So what in heaven's name was Prime Minister Stephen Harper doing this week giving $21.6-million to Quebec City's airport, money found in the Gateways and Border Crossings Fund?

Quebec City's airport isn't a gateway to anywhere. It's not close to a frontier, border or coast. Its commercial traffic is risible, and it's got only a handful of regularly scheduled direct flights anywhere outside Quebec.

If Ottawa is giving money under this fund to Quebec City's airport, why not give millions to serious international airports that really are gateways, such as Montreal, Halifax, Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver? And remember that Quebec City, like almost 30 other airports in Canada, can impose fees on passengers to finance upgrades. That's the way airports finance their improvements these days, not through dollops of federal cash. Passengers, not taxpayers, pay.

Obviously, the announcement made no economic or policy sense, but then little does these days in the run-up to an election. Anything goes by way of justification. As in, a couple of days before, Mr. Harper was talking up a youth gangs program in the swing riding of Surrey, B.C., where he tied that announcement to the Economic Action Plan. Hello?

Mr. Harper had this Quebec City political problem: the new hockey arena. After months of dithering, Mr. Harper finally said no, Ottawa doesn't do arenas and stadiums - the absolutely correct decision. (Shame on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff for saying his party might help finance the arena, a terrible example of base politicking.)

But Mr. Harper's party hopes to hold its seats in the Quebec City area. So it cast about rather desperately for something to entice voters, the theory being they can be induced with federal largesse, and hit on the airport. In other words, it's all politics all the time, there and across the country. Sound public policy has run for cover.

The Quebec City airport announcement, and so many others made recently, are bizarre for reasons other than bad policy: They illustrate the forked tongue with which the Harper government speaks of economic policy.

Next week, according to all public pronouncements, the budget will preach modest restraint. Don't come to me looking for new money, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has warned all seekers. We're going to impose across-the-board cuts on departments, telling civil servants to cut budgets rather than ministers giving them political direction - a rather bizarre way of proceeding, if you think about it.

At the same time this message of restraint is being given, Conservative ministers, MPs and the Prime Minister are fanning out across Canada spending money as if they'd never heard the word "restraint." In one day, 80 Conservative MPs made announcements or reminded their constituents of projects previously announced; a few days ago, a similar publicity extravaganza featured 40 of them.

The Harper government has shamelessly tried to extract from the Economic Action Plan every scintilla of political credit, making announcement after announcement, using tens of millions of taxpayers' dollars to fund television ads extolling the plan's virtues, and extending the timelines for finishing projects.

The recession is over, but the spending just keeps rolling, as does the advertising campaign for a party transfixed by spin and messaging with whatever means are available, including taxpayers' money. (The Conservatives have already set aside millions of your dollars for an advertising barrage to extol the virtues of their budget.)

And if, as in the Quebec City case, money can't be found in the Economic Action Plan, there are plenty of other piggy banks to raid for political announcements from a government that's never really believed in the restraint it will preach half-heartedly next week.

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