Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tories nuts if they fund Quebec arena

Such hints just so much crazy talk

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Manitobans have been reading the headlines over and over again, and it just doesn't seem to make any sense.

The federal government hinted, and that is the strongest word we could use right now, that it may be inclined to provide $170 million to build a new arena in Quebec City to bolster attempts to lure back NHL hockey and win the right to host the Winter Olympics.

Two words come to mind after hearing that story: crazy talk. Just consider the political context.

Former Liberal finance minister John Manley once suggested Ottawa should help the Ottawa Senators with the cost of a new arena. He was soundly thrashed for even bringing up the subject. Ever since, and for good reason, Ottawa has avoided making anything but a token investment in efforts to keep or attract an NHL team. It is in all respects a horrible investment for government. We in Manitoba know that any plan to invest that much money in a professional hockey team is doomed to fail because it has failed everywhere else it was tried.

If that weren't crazy enough, consider that the federal government is accruing billions of dollars in recession debt as we speak, and it may take a decade or more before deficit financing is fully arrested. It just doesn't seem like there's a lot of discretionary money to build NHL-style arenas. We know this because Ottawa doesn't have any more money to stimulate our still flagging economy. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has already confirmed that Canada's Economic Action Plan is pretty much at an end and it will not be launching Action Plan Part Deux. Given these constraints, how can the Tories muse about a nine-figure investment in a building that aspires to one day host seven-figure athletes?

That is not to say there aren't scenarios under which funding could be available through conventional means. The stimulus program may be ending, but there will be some sort of federal infrastructure funding in the next budget, and out of that there will be money for Quebec, and perhaps even money for a new arena. The big question is whether Ottawa will create some sort of special stream of funding for this project, or make Quebec choose between an arena and other infrastructure needs. Public money in professional sporting facilities is controversial, even more so when public money is diverted from repairs to bridges, roads and sewers.

Manitobans know all too well about tough choices like this. Back in the early 2000s, then-premier Gary Doer struck a deal with the federal Liberal government to cost-share a nearly $700-million expansion of the Red River Floodway. The money was to come from a special fund aimed at "projects of national importance" so that it wouldn't eclipse all the other infrastructure needs in the province. Unfortunately, about halfway into the project, the federal government changed. In 2008, the new Conservative government reneged and said there would be no special funding for the floodway above and beyond the normal annual grant from Ottawa.

Angry words were exchanged back and forth before a compromise was eventually reached. Ottawa would provide additional funding for key transportation projects, including CentrePort and the Port of Churchill, but Manitoba was still denied additional funding to complete the floodway.

All this background sets the stage for comments made last week by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Manitoba's regional minister. When reporters asked Toews how Ottawa could fund a third of a $400-million ice palace in Quebec City when it has been so darned tight-fisted about funding similar projects in Manitoba, Toews essentially told Manitobans to stop whining. "Manitoba has received, in fact, quite a substantial amount of money, certainly on a per-capita basis more than its fair share," Toews told reporters.

It's not clear what Toews means exactly when he says this, and sources confirm he says it a lot. Ottawa uses the very same formula to calculate infrastructure funds for Manitoba that it uses in every other province. The only way to make Toews' mathematics work is if he includes the $100 million in capital cost and $22 million operating funds being invested in the $310-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Ottawa's contribution to the museum is substantial, but given that it's a national institution (the first ever built outside Ottawa), it's not an infrastructure project in the conventional sense and shouldn't be counted against Manitoba's infrastructure funding. Unfortunately, that's what Toews appears to be doing.

Disingenuous mathematics aside, it's hard to see how dangling the prospect of federal funding for a new arena in Quebec City will help the Conservatives in the next federal election, which could come as early as this fall. Last week, after seeing a dozen Conservative MPs from Quebec posing in Nordiques jerseys, it was hard not to think about the hard lessons learned by other jersey-sporting politicians who tried to exploit our appetite for repatriating long-lost NHL franchises.

In 2007, Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, in a bid to wow voters, did the exact same thing. He organized a photo opportunity where he put on a Winnipeg Jets jersey and even got former Jet great Thomas Steen to pose with him. Like the Quebec Tories, he made vague promises about taxpayer support for efforts to lure the NHL back to Winnipeg. And then he watched his campaign evaporate out from under him. Sure, there were quite a few Winnipeggers who liked his shtick, but there were many more who thought it was foolish. It is now accepted that the Jets stunt was a horrible mistake.

Perhaps the federal Conservatives do not really intend to spend money on an arena in Quebec City that will not even see a shovel in the ground before the next federal election. Perhaps this is just a way of being seen as supporting the return of NHL hockey to Quebec City without having to spend a dime. Perhaps.

But for now, it's just crazy talk.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2010 A4

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