News / Canada

Have Liberals 'invested more in infrastructure' than Tories did in five years?

Justin Trudeau was elected on a promise of deficit spending to boost Canada's infrastructure.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected on a promise of deficit spending to boost Canada's infrastructure. But has the investment been as large as boasted?

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected on a promise of deficit spending to boost Canada's infrastructure. But has the investment been as large as boasted?

OTTAWA — "We've invested more in infrastructure in 10 months than the Conservatives did in five years." — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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The Liberals returned to federal office last fall on a platform that included deficit budgeting spurred by big spending on infrastructure projects.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that infrastructure spending is on the upswing.

But government spending on infrastructure is one of the most convoluted and contentious areas to track, due to the long time frame required and the constant re-packaging and re-announcement of various funds and projects.

The former government announced in its February 2014 budget "the largest long-term federal infrastructure commitment in Canadian history."

So have the Liberals really "invested more" since taking office last Nov. 4 than the Conservatives did between January 2011 and the election of 2015?  

Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of "no baloney" to "full of baloney" (complete methodology below).

This one earns a rating of "some baloney" — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing. Here's why:

THE FACTS

The Liberal election platform promised to pump $60 billion of new money into federal infrastructure spending over the next decade, with most funds earmarked for "green" infrastructure like public transit, sewers and water treatment plants, plus social infrastructure such as daycare, affordable housing and seniors' residences.

According to the Liberal budget delivered last March 22, the first tranche will total $11.9 billion on projects over two years.

Infrastructure Canada tracks and publishes infrastructure allocations on a weekly basis. Those tables, published on the government's open data website, show that some $4.58 billion has been approved for 862 projects since the new government took office.

The same tables list 728 projects worth $3.57 billion approved under the previous government between Jan. 1, 2011 and the election call on Aug. 2, 2015.

So the prime minister's statement, on its face, is correct. There are, however, a number of nuances in the project tables that cast a somewhat different light.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Money allocated is not the same as money spent, and only the government's annual public accounts detail how much cash actually went out the door in any given year.

Trudeau's use of the word "invested" can easily conflate money that's been approved and money that has actually been spent.

Amerjeet Sohi, the Liberal infrastructure minister, was more accurate this week when he made a similar point of comparison: "We were able to approve more funding for projects since last June than we did over the past five years combined."

"I think it's really important to say 'allocated' is not the same as 'spent,'" said Jennifer Robson, who teaches public affairs and policy management at Carleton University's Kroeger College.

"Generally speaking, the federal dollars flow as a reimbursement of a share of eligible costs for an agreed-upon program after the costs have been incurred. You allocate at the front end what you think your future liability is going to be, then you reconcile when you have receipts."

The numbers for 2016 won't be available for months, but it is worth noting the government tables show that just six of 862 approved projects so far this year are actually underway.

By comparison, 467 of the 728 Conservative-approved projects are underway (64 per cent), and almost 40 per cent have been completed.

"You can announce anything you want. However what is really important is the shovels in the ground and the people that are employed to work," Dianne Watts, the Conservative infrastructure critic, said in an interview.

"The fact of the matter is, one year in there's six projects that have start dates. It's on their website — and it's worth $8.5 million."

It's also noteworthy that only about $2.3 billion of the $4.58 billion allocated under the Liberals comes from new Liberal infrastructure programs — the Clean Water and Wastewater Fund and the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund.

An internal government study that looked at a decade of federal programs found that infrastructure programs consistently take four or five years to ramp up to peak spending, with little money out the door at the beginning or end of the programs.

The Infrastructure Canada study found that money "rarely flows as anticipated" because projects take years. That leaves the federal department with no control over when the money is actually spent, because funds don't flow until a city or province submits project receipts. The lag can make it seem that government regularly under-spends infrastructure dollars.

As Robson, a former policy adviser in the Prime Minister's Office under Liberal Jean Chretien, put it Thursday: "There's a reasonable possibility that some of the dollars that have been allocated this year are actually essentially funds that were allocated previously (by the Conservatives) being re-allocated within the same program."

THE VERDICT

The Liberal government has simplified the process for approving infrastructure spending and ramped up the money available, resulting in hundreds of project approvals this year.

The dollar value of those approvals does exceed approvals during the preceding five years under the Conservatives, but to date it would appear likely that only a fraction of the approved funds have actually been spent.

For those reasons, Trudeau's assertions about Liberal infrastructure "investments" contains "some baloney."

METHODOLOGY

The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:

No baloney — the statement is completely accurate

A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required

Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing

A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth

Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate