“Please sir, I’d like some more.” So uttered the little orphan Oliver to the pompous, bloated, stupid, and cruel Parish Beadle Mr. Bumble in Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist . Though the book was fictional, Canada’s provinces have seemingly fallen into a position tragically similar to that of little Oliver. And our infrastructure bears a striking resemblance to the decrepit orphanage Dickens described.
Thursday, in a meeting held in Quebec City, the Premier of Quebec, Phillipe Couillard, and the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, answered questions for assembled reporters about what they hope to get out of this week’s Council of the Federation in Charlottetown. While Ms. Wynne spoke frequently to reporters, her French roughly equivalent to Pauline Marois’ English, Mon. Couillard, who’s mother tongue is French, spoke very little. Despite the differences in the two provincial Liberal parties, both leaders were—as most premiers are able to do—hating on Ottawa. Perhaps hate is too strong a term. Both agreed that the Federal government’s infrastructure investment strategies didn’t go far enough, and chided PM Harper for avoiding dealing with his premiers.
According to the CBC, the last “First Ministers Conference” took place in 2009. The basic idea of the First Minister’s conference was for the prime ministers of Canada (until the 1940’s everyone referred to their Premier as Prime Minister, and things were pretty confusing) to sit down and discuss issues facing the country as equals. Sounds reasonable. McGill political science professor Richard Schultz has a tendency to tell his first year classes that, if Sir John A. Macdonald had been requested to attend such a conference, “he would have laughed, cried, and then drank.” Federal Prime Ministers rarely see their provincial counterparts as their equal. Stephen Harper being no exception to that rule.
According to the Library of Parliament, studies have found that all levels of government have been underfunding infrastructure for decades, including money for infrastructure funding. Now, according to the Federal Conservatives, this is simply not true! At least, underfunding stopped when the Tories took power. In a joint statement, Minister of Infrastructure, Denis Lebel, and Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced that the 70 billion dollars the government is pledging for infrastructure over the next decade is the largest ever! That’s almost 7 billion dollars a year, which will be just enough to cover the recovery from yearly natural disasters like floods, and oil spills, polluted water, tornadoes, and election campaigns, according to TD Economics. The other 2 billion can go to all those communities across Canada in need of new bridges, schools, and hospitals that aren’t powered by oil lamps. That’s a ton of money! The same statement from Lebel and Oliver touted that the Conservatives had increased infrastructure funding by 300% since they took office in 2006! While this data chart prepared by the Library of Parliament shows Federal Infrastructure spending has increased over the past seven years (which I’m sure has nothing to do with coming out of a recession), whether it’s nearly enough is far from clear.
A recent book by Terry Fallis, The High Road, actually deals with a fictional Canadian government having to admit that the country’s infrastructure has long been massively underfunded. In the book, the newly elected Liberal minority must acknowledge that the underfunding dates back 15 years to the previous Liberal administration; rather than purely being the fault of the Conservatives. Could Fallis be prophetic? Well, we’ll have to wait and see, but let’s hope a major bridge doesn’t fall down before then as it does in the book. Interestingly enough, the primary stimulus ended once a majority government was reached. Currently, the Conservatives spend about half of one percent of the budget on infrastructure. Which is generous, considering the other things that need the money, like military planes and ships that haven’t appeared, senators who don’t appear to do any work, MP’s who do very little work, and their nearly $300,000 yearly expense accounts.
In Dickens’ work Mr. Bumble denied Oliver’s request for more and sold him to an undertaker from whom Oliver ran away into the arms of the Artful Dodger (of questions) and the thieving but lovable Mr. Flaherty, er sorry I meant Mr. Fagin. Fortunately for Oliver, there is a happy ending, where he is adopted by the kind, wealthy, friendly Mr. Brownlow, who turns out to be Oliver’s grandfather (great-uncle in some versions). I hope that Canada’s provinces will have a similar happy ending.