Harper demands MPs put rush on $3-billion in stimulus spending

From Friday's Globe and Mail
February 26, 2009 at 11:08 PM EST

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper is demanding MPs let his government bypass normal approval processes for $3-billion of stimulus spending, saying it's imperative to rush aid as the economy falters, and warning he's willing to head to another election should opposition parties block it.

The Tories are proposing the fund's cash be spent over 90 days between April 1 and June 30 and want to take shortcuts in allocating it – although they promise to report back afterward on its disbursement. Under normal procedures, money wouldn't have started flowing until June.

Liberal Finance critic John McCallum called the fund a “blank cheque” and his NDP counterpart Thomas Mulcair likened it to a “slush fund” – a charge that made Mr. Harper bristle yesterday while talking to reporters in Vancouver.

The Prime Minister said opposition MPs have “a job to do” now and that's to approve the funds, especially because they urged the Tories to move quickly on stimulus.

“The opposition has asked us to provide mechanisms by which we can flow funds far faster than we have been able to traditionally,” Mr. Harper told reporters in Vancouver, adding he won't back down.

“Let's be clear. …These are confidence measures. We are not going to mess around with this … we have our bureaucrats working overtime to make sure we cut red tape and get this money flowing quickly. If the opposition doesn't like it, they will find themselves in an election.”

Mr. Harper took a swipe at opposition MPs, saying they've been little help in the stimulus debate.

“To be blunt about it, the opposition has nothing positive to contribute to this economy.”

Threatening a visit to the ballot box is a return to form for the Prime Minister, who'd eschewed hardball tactics in recent months after a near-death political experience in December, when opposition parties threatened to topple his government.

News of this fund comes one day after federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty warned the Tories expect some foul-ups in the stimulus spending as they disburse it quickly, a frank admission from a party that once marketed itself as the sworn enemy of wasteful spending.

Strategic Counsel pollster Peter Donolo said it makes no sense for Mr. Harper to stir up election talk right now, particularly with the economy listing. “I don't think you should be threatening an election when you're dropping in the polls,” he said.

“It's difficult for a combative politician to always mind his Ps and Qs ... [but] sometimes they can't help themselves.”

The $3-billion fund will be part of an interim supply bill to be voted on by March 26 and, although the Liberals are supporting the 2009 stimulus budget, Mr. McCallum said they've not yet committed to backing the supply bill – which is also a confidence vote.

Mr. McCallum said he wasn't willing to give Mr. Harper a pass yesterday and said the Tory Leader's “super-aggressive” bully tactics were puzzling and irritating. He said if the Tories had moved sooner to offer stimulus spending – last fall, for instance, when other countries acted – then there wouldn't be a rush now.

“We don't want to penalize Canadians for this laziness on the part of the government, but neither are we going to cave to pressure from Stephen Harper to do what he wants us to do,” Mr. McCallum said.

Details of government spending are normally reviewed by MPs before being approved by parliamentary votes.

In this case, however, a lump sum from the Budget 2009 stimulus package will be handed to Treasury Board, as Ottawa's cash manager, to allocate money as it sees fit. It will later report back to Parliament on how the cash was spent.

Treasury Board officials defended the accountability of the fund, saying departments are “better equipped” to oversee this spending “than in previous years.”

The $3-billion short-term stimulus fund unveiled by Treasury Board president Vic Toews is not earmarked for any specific program, but is set up so departments can draw on it to expedite stimulus projects, officials said.

The NDP's Mr. Mulcair, whose party has already committed to vote against stimulus budget legislation, warned the Tories risk creating a boondoggle like the late 1990s sponsorship scandal. “How does one create a slush fund like the sponsorship scandal? Well, just say that there is an emergency, that it is serving a higher purpose and therefore the normal rules will not apply.

“For the Liberals the emergency was national unity. For the Conservatives it will be the economic crisis.”

Separately, the Harper government admitted the Afghanistan war will cost Canada far more than it's ever forecast, saying the direct cost by the mission's end in 2011 will be $11.3-billion.

Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page last fall already warned taxpayers that the full price tag for the conflict could exceed $18-billion. But before yesterday, the biggest war bill estimate the Conservatives had acknowledged was $8.1-billion.