In defence of the $120,000 giant inflatable rubber duck

OPINION: An enormous bath toy will make its way to Toronto in July, and taxpayers are footing the bill. That’s a good thing
By Graeme Bayliss - Published on Jun 01, 2017
An 18-metre-tall inflatable rubber duck will make Toronto Harbour its bathtub in July. (Eva Rinaldi/Wikipedia)

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You’ve probably heard by now that the Ontario government is putting $120,000 of grant money toward floating a colossal rubber duck into the Toronto Harbour as part of this summer’s Canada 150 festivities. If not, I’ll catch you up: it’s 13,600 kilograms of social media bait intended to draw young people to a celebration no one beyond boomers, bureaucrats, and (ahem) certain public broadcasters seems to care much about.

Naturally — this being a government project costing in excess of nothing — Tory MPPs expressed some disapprobation when the topic came up Monday at Queen’s Park. “Quack economics” is what PC deputy leader Steve Clark called it. Rick Nicholls, the party’s tourism critic, dubbed the whole thing “an absolute cluster-duck.”

One tortured pun at a time, the Tories questioned the relevance of a giant inflatable duck to Canadian history, and whether spending $120,000 on said duck was the best use of provincial money given, as Nicholls noted, “people are already treading water, trying to pay their bills.”

Never mind that this grant money would’ve been allocated anyway, or that every dollar the government spends on the Redpath Waterfront Festival (which it has funded three years in a row, and at which the duck will be an honoured guest this July) “triggers about $20 worth of ancillary investments,” according to Tourism Minister Eleanor McMahon. Also never mind the perverse irony of the above-quoted Tories using ba-dum-tss wordplay to rail against whimsy.

Consider instead mushy abstractions like community and social cohesion, which are easy to make fun of but vital to human existence, and that on a per capita basis making thousands of people smile for $120,000 is bargain-basement. Then consider whether these spend-nothing miserabilists actually have voters’ best interests in mind when they reflexively gainsay any non-essential — even frivolous — government expenditure.

Of course it’s true that many Ontarians are struggling to get by (something, incidentally, that will never not be true for a sizable percentage of any population), but this is a giant inflatable red herring: even if that $120,000, which is a piss in the province’s budgetary ocean, would be better spent on social programs, it’s not as if the Tories are keen on such programs anyway.


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That a rubber duck has nothing to do with Canadian history is an even less compelling argument. Not that it does, mind you — but then neither, really, does Canada 150. The past century and a half accounts for the equivalent of a rounding error in the human history of what is now called Canada. What we are celebrating with Canada 150 is the sesquicentennial of Britain’s calculation that it was not getting a good enough ROI on directly governing certain far-flung colonies it should probably not have invaded in the first place. An inflatable non sequitur seems the perfect way to celebrate something so arbitrary.

The reason the MPPs’ arguments fall apart like a cake in the rain is simple: there is no cogent case to be made against the duck. It’s fanciful and sort of dumb, but then so are many things that make life enjoyable, and there is no other reason Clark and Nicholls and various hack newspaper columnists are opposed to it except that they think they should be opposed to it, because the prevailing political attitude is that all money spent is money spent badly.

To those blanket-moisteners, I say: go to the lakeshore this summer and see the duck in person. Go see in every selfie the value of a bit of frivolity. Go duck yourself.

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