We’ve been here before. Big plans, big promises and no accountability. We’ve seen where this leads — government programs that lack transparency and become mired in delay and waste.
The federal government’s $186.7-billion infrastructure program is impressive in scope but its lack of transparency makes it vulnerable to the issues that plague these kinds of undertakings.
For example, a total of 32 different government departments have been put in charge of various parts of the 12-year program. There’s a well-worn phrase about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing; imagine how much more complicated things can get when you have 32 hands!
That’s why the Senate Committee on National Finance has been taking a close look at the government’s infrastructure program. We have already released two of three parts of our Smarter Planning, Smarter Spending series during 14 months of careful study; we have made good use of testimony from a number of expert witnesses from across the country who have appeared before us.
Our first report noted the government has yet to develop a strategic infrastructure plan, and called attention to the complex administrative burden of a program involving so many different government organizations.
The second report recommended that the government release all data on infrastructure projects and delved into the proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank.
Throughout our study, the committee has been frustrated with the flow of information available on the infrastructure program — so we decided to build our own database of the more than 6,000 infrastructure projects that have received federal approval since April 2016. By compiling this information into one source and making it available to all Canadians, we have done what the government should have.
Even a quick glance at the database is revealing.
The three most significance investments are all bound for Ontario; two of these are to fund public transit in the Toronto area.
The database also reveals that some of these supposed infrastructure projects are not really infrastructure projects at all. For instance, almost $115 million is going to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre for the purpose of adding “new hardwood flooring [and] comfortable new seats,” among other things, to its concert hall, the centre’s website said.
Our committee’s hope is that shedding light on the entirety of the program and its many projects will force the government to provide clear priorities, concrete objectives and specific performance measures.
Without this information, Canadians have no way of determining how effective the program will be in terms of reaching the creating good jobs and stimulating economic growth, which the government has said are the program’s goals.
This rings equally true for the new Canada Infrastructure Bank, which will be overseeing $15 billion drawn from the program (in addition to billions of dollars more from other sources). Our hearings heard several witnesses express serious concerns about this behemoth of a bank, particularly with regard to how independent its chairperson and board can be under the proposed governance model. Once again, this looks more like politics than sound fiscal management.
When done well, infrastructure can create lasting benefits by building healthy communities, enhancing prosperity and productivity in Canada. It lays the foundation for the future. But we’ve got to do it right.
Accountability is at the heart of democracy. The government should remember that and shine some light on this shadowy program.
This article appeared in the Saturday, October 14, 2017 edition of the Telegraph Journal.