Will a federal election disrupt critical municipal COVID-19 projects?

OPINION: The worst-kept secret of Canadian politics right now is that there’s likely to be a federal election this year. Could that derail the COVID-19 funding that municipalities are waiting for?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 26, 2021
The federal Investing in Canada Program has faced criticism from the Parliamentary Budget Officer as a result of lengthy approval delays. (iStock/i-Stockr)

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Before last week ended with the resignation of the Governor General, the most interesting points of discussion in national politics were about whether Canadians would be headed to the ballot box again this year — or rather, since nearly everyone thinks the answer is “yes,” the more nuanced question is whether it will be a spring or fall election in 2021.

The next election, when it comes, will of course hash out any number of political issues as the rival parties try to win a majority (or, if not, hold the winner to a minority). But a few different participants at this year’s Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference shared a different concern with me, either publicly or otherwise: that federal approvals for crucial infrastructure projects have taken so long to receive that many Ontario municipalities could miss this year’s construction window — and that a possible election could blow up what planning they’ve been able to do.

The immediate context is the somewhat troubled federal Investing in Canada Program, or IICP. IICP has already faced some non-partisan criticism from the Parliamentary Budget Officer as a result of lengthy approval delays and ambiguous evidence that it’s actually resulted in new infrastructure spending by the provinces. But it’s the delays that are key here: projects nominated by municipal and provincial governments need to get final approval from the feds before they can put shovels in the ground.

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Minister of Infrastructure Laurie Scott said repeatedly last year during question periods at Queen’s Park that hundreds of provincially approved projects are waiting for Ottawa’s approval. (According to a government news release from October, roughly 370 of 760 were still waiting for approval.) Scott also expressed some frustration at Tuesday’s ROMA ministers’ forum about the fact that a number of broadband-internet projects are waiting for federal approvals as well.

It's federal money — of course Ottawa wants to make sure that lower orders of government aren’t taking advantage of it before it signs very large cheques. And, for what it’s worth, nobody TVO.org spoke with about this issue described the current federal delays as unusual: it’s simply a reality that the federal government almost always takes the longest of the three governments to say yes.

But 2020, and now 2021, haven’t been normal years, and there’s a real concern that the current federal government has been slow to approve projects for its marquee infrastructure-spending program even as the pandemic has made the kind of economic support these projects provide even more necessary. The normal speed of approval (or lack of speed) isn’t sufficient in a pandemic, and that’s doubly so because there’s a separate, COVID-19-specific infrastructure stream in IICP whose applications need to be submitted to the province by March 2021. If Ottawa can’t clear the bottleneck of the normal, pre-COVID-19 projects soon, it’s hard to see it pushing infrastructure money specifically intended for pandemic relief out much faster.

When you factor in a possible election — which would effectively freeze any federal money that hadn’t already been approved and could stop any further approvals for months — the situation becomes even more aggravating for municipalities.

The alternative sounds a bit crass but is more appealing for municipalities: accelerate the approvals for IICP projects to clear not just the backlog but also the COVID-19-related projects, and then spend all summer cutting ribbons for new projects across the country — but especially in battleground ridings in Ontario and Quebec. The hitch, of course, is that the only reason we’re discussing the possibility of an election this year is that the Trudeau government is in a minority Parliament and therefore not entirely a master of its own fate. It might survive a vote on the spring budget, or it might not. If the Liberals can’t cajole an opposition party into saving them in the spring, it won’t matter what they wish they could have spent the summer doing.

It will, however, matter to municipalities, who are counting on those infrastructure dollars flowing.

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