Own the spending issue

Is there a few million in the budget for future Olympic medallists?

A few weeks back I tried making the case for tax hikes over spending cuts as the main way the federal government should tackle its deficit problem. My argument relied heavily on the rather obvious observation that not spending is hard. I rhymed off a list of stuff people don’t like governments to scrimp on: funding schools, filling potholes, equipping soldiers, and—this was before the Vancouver games opened—winning Olympic medals.

Today, Michael Ignatieff left little doubt that after the West Coast gold rush, his Liberals aren’t going to let the Conservatives off easy the last of my just-for-instances. Ignatieff threw his support behind the plea from the athletes’ lobby for Ottawa double its contribution to the winter sports portion of the Own the Podium program to $22 million from $11 million.

That amount would be enough for Ottawa to make up for corporate sponsorship that’s expected to melt away like snow from the slopes of Cypress Mountain now that the games are over. But every signal from the federal Tories, so far, has been to urge the private sector to ante up again instead, since sports can’t be exempted from a broad policy of no new measures in Thursday’s budget. (Well, make that no new extravagant measures.)

Speaking on Parliament Hill a couple of hours ago, Ignatieff made the case that paying for Olympic medals is really an investment in wider participation, especially among kids. Expect to hear this again and again.

“I can’t understand the government’s position on this,” he told reporters. “Canadians understand that by investing in the top of the pyramid of our sporting activities, we broaden the base. We know what our objective is here. We want the great ones, like Jen Heil and Bilodeau and Hamelin, to inspire athletes on every ski hill and every little arena in the country.”

It’s a reasonable case, of course. And the Tories learned the hard way, in the form of the punishing hit they took in Quebec last election over smallish arts cuts, that a bit of restraint can cause wildly disproportionate pain during a campaign.

So this is shaping up  as a key test case for the budget. Do the Conservatives really mean that all spending is to be frozen? Or will a last-minute decision to find a few million for Olympic athletes be the first concession to a more typical patchwork that reflect policy priorities and political exigencies?