Transit, Trump and corporate subsidies: how politics touched Canadians this week

By , , on April 1, 2017


Talk of pending pot legislation and Conservative membership drives consumed Parliament Hill conversation this week, filling the void left by MPs who returned to their ridings to discuss the pros and cons of the federal budget.  (Photo: Racquel Heron/Flickr)
Talk of pending pot legislation and Conservative membership drives consumed Parliament Hill conversation this week, filling the void left by MPs who returned to their ridings to discuss the pros and cons of the federal budget. (Photo: Racquel Heron/Flickr)

OTTAWA — Talk of pending pot legislation and Conservative membership drives consumed Parliament Hill conversation this week, filling the void left by MPs who returned to their ridings to discuss the pros and cons of the federal budget.

Bureaucrats have been burning the midnight oil to pull together draft legislation to legalize marijuana, crafting a bill that promises to be hefty, complicated and controversial enough to drive political debate for months.

And Conservative leadership candidates wound up their respective membership-selling campaigns, shifting to new tactics aimed at showing party members how much momentum they have.

Amid the Tory jockeying and the pot-inspired lobbying, the political week was notable for concrete developments on corporate subsidies, public transit and the influence of Donald Trump. Here’s a summary:

SUBSIDIES

Even as cynicism was bursting into the open over the federal government’s recent subsidies for Bombardier Inc., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was handing out more money for corporations this week — this time to the auto sector.

In February, after a year and a half of playing chicken with Bombardier and the government of Quebec, the federal government announced $372.5-million in loans for the aerospace company. That was on top of the $1 billion that Quebec gave the firm to help with its financial woes.

But now, Bombardier’s corporate documentation shows that total executive compensation was US$32.6 million in 2016, up almost 50 per cent from a year earlier.

Trudeau, who recently warned European business elite that they needed to “get real” about the anxieties their workers are facing, defended the Bombardier subsidy, suggesting it would create jobs and growth.

At the same time, his government announced $102 million in conditional grants for Ford Canada — money matched by Ontario, and meant to complement a $1-billion investment by the company. The goal is to push the company’s production lines towards autonomous vehicles and connected car technology.

The federal budget indicated that the Liberals won’t hesitate to pick private-sector winners and support them with government money. How will taxpayers know when they really need it?

TRUMP STRIKES AGAIN

Just when official Ottawa started thinking that the Trump administration was showing signs of being somewhat predictable — at least on files affecting Canada — the U.S. president and his entourage made a series of moves this week that spilled over into Canada.

On Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order to roll back climate change measures and revive the coal industry — prompting questions in Canada about how to stay in lock-step with U.S. policy while also cutting greenhouse gases.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration sent the U.S. Congress a draft list of priorities for renegotiating the North American free trade agreement. It was an early look at how serious Trump is about reformulating trade rules to Americans’ benefit — Canada and Mexico be damned.

Late Thursday, Trump’s staff outlined a new initiative to examine the trade practices of 16 countries — Canada among them — to see if there are any abuses that disadvantage American products.

And on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a deadline for NATO allies — including Canada — to produce plans to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence. Canada is at about one per cent right now; hitting the agreed-upon target of two per cent would mean doubling the $19-billion annual budget.

What will next week bring?

TRANSIT

Cabinet ministers fanned out across the country this week to highlight last week’s budget moves, but some of the biggest dollars came from budgets of the past.

Trudeau was in Toronto on Friday putting $1.8 billion of federal money towards improving GO Transit connecting Toronto to its suburbs. The money was set aside under the Stephen Harper government but had not yet been earmarked. With provincial contributions, the project is getting a $4.4-billion injection — what Trudeau called the largest project Ottawa has ever invested in.

Smaller projects across Ontario also got a boost from infrastructure money set aside last year.

The spending on transit has multiple goals: shortening commuting times and congestion, lessening pollution, creating jobs and spurring economic growth.

Indeed, the federal Liberals are counting on that growth to boost federal revenues, curtail their deficit challenge and help them fund the remainder of their election promises.

But they can’t spend the money fast enough. Finance Minister Bill Morneau said last week that he has come to terms with the fact that infrastructure money just can’t be rushed without wasteful mistakes being made.