OTTAWA — "We've invested more in infrastructure in 10 months than the Conservatives did in five years." — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
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.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks to a news conference in Ottawa on Sept. 21, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
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 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.
Amarjeet 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.
Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi listens to a question during an event in Ottawa on April 5, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
"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."
Story continues after slideshow:
The Liberal government delivered its maiden budget Tuesday, March 22. A deficit of $29.4 billion in 2016-17, nearly three times the $10 billion promised during the fall election campaign, and a projected deficit of $17.7 billion in 2019-20 rather than the balanced budget that was promised in October. (Source: The Canadian Press)
One of the earmarks of the budget is a commitment to spending on aboriginal issues. This includes: - $2.6 billion over five years for primary and secondary education on First Nations reserves, including language and cultural programs, plus $969.4 million over five years for education infrastructure. - $1.2 billion over five years for social infrastructure for Aboriginal Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and northern communities. - $10.4 million over three years for new women's shelters in First Nations communities, and $33.6 million over five years and $8.3 million ongoing for support services. - $40 million over two years for the inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
The Liberals will be changing the structure of Canada's child benefits, ending income splitting and other tax credits for families and parents. This means: - $10 billion more over two years for a new Canada child benefit, absorbing and replacing both the Canada child tax benefit and the universal child care benefit. Targeted to low and middle-income families, the government says the new benefit provides an average increase of nearly $2,300 in 2016-17. - An end to income splitting for couples with children, the children's fitness tax credit and the children's arts tax credit. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
The government will spend $2.5 billion over two years on a suite of changes, including reducing the required work experience for new entrants and re-entrants; halving the two-week waiting period; extending a pilot project to allow claimants to work while collecting benefits; simplifying job-search requirements; and extending the benefit eligibility window in specific regions with a higher unemployment rate. (Source: The Canadian Press)
- $5.6 billion more in benefits to veterans and their families over five years, including a disability award that increases to $360,000, retroactive to 2006, and an earnings loss benefit to injured vets of 90 per cent of pre-release salary. The government is also re-opening nine veterans' service offices across the country and adding a 10th. - Planned National Defence purchases worth $3.7 billion — ships, planes and vehicles — are being deferred indefinitely. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
Planned National Defence purchases worth $3.7 billion — ships, planes and vehicles — are being deferred indefinitely. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
The budget includes $3.4 billion over five years to increase the guaranteed income supplement top-up benefit by up to $947 annually for single seniors, and restore the old age security eligibility age to 65 from 67. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
The Liberals broke a major campaign promise to cut the small business tax rate. Instead, the rate will remain at the current 10.5 per cent on the first $500,000 of active business income. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
The Liberals will spend $1.53 billion over five years to increase Canada student grants to $3,000 from $2,000 for low-income students, to $1,200 from $800 for middle-income students and to $1,800 from $1,200 for part-time students. $2 billion over three years is also earmarked for a new strategic investment fund for infrastructure improvements at colleges and universities, in partnership with provinces and territories.
The Liberals' green infrastructure plan includes: - $2.2 billion over five years in water and wastewater treatment and waste management - $2 billion over two years for a low-carbon economy fund - Over $1 billion over four years to support future clean technology investments - $345.3 million over five years to Environment and Climate Change Canada, Health Canada and the National Research Council to take action to address air pollution. (Source: The Canadian Press)
The Liberals will spend $500,000 to help understand the role of foreign homebuyers in the country's housing market. The government says comprehensive and reliable data on the number of homes sold to foreign buyers does not exist right now. Read more here. (Source: The Canadian Press)
The marquee Liberal commitment to Syrian refugee resettlement could end up costing taxpayers close to $1 billion. The budget provided an additional $245 million over five years to bring in the remaining 10,000 people needed to meet the Liberal promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
$142.3 million over five years will be spent to add new national parks and improve access during the 150th anniversary of Confederation. (Source: The Canadian Press
The Grits will provide up to $178 million over two years for the provinces for urgent affordable housing needs. Read more here (Source: The Canadian Press)
The budget earmarks $38.5 million over two years to strengthen and modernize Canada's food safety system. (Source: The Canadian Press)
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 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."
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