Stephen Harper goes to town

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual general meeting this weekend will hear from all three leaders of the national parties—a relatively rare convergence of Messrs Harper, Ignatieff and Layton outside the House.

Below is the text for Mr. Harper’s remarks.

“Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Thank you very much for that warm welcome.

“It’s a real pleasure to be here, and I want to thank FCM President Basil Stewart for the invitation, and Mayor David Miller for being our host here in Toronto.  As I’m sure both Mayor Stewart and Mayor Miller can tell you, it’s been quite a year for Canada’s municipalities, and it’s safe to say the coming year will be just as busy.  Also, greetings to my friends and parliamentary colleagues, Minister John Baird and Tim Uppal.

“I should also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the representatives from Vancouver, Whistler, Richmond and so many other communities in British Columbia, who hosted Canada and the world during the 2010 Winter Games.  It was a great show, and a great team effort.  We’re going to remember those Games, Canada’s games, for a long time, and I want to thank you for helping to make those great memories possible for Canadians from coast to coast to coast.  You were a big part of us showing the world and ourselves what Canadians are capable of achieving.  Let’s give them a hand!

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve always enjoyed getting together with folks like you who, in politics, know how to get done.  The things that people really care about.  Never mind equalization or public service accountability.  There are people in this room who know how to get a pothole fixed.  But we have our moments of satisfaction, too.  And I want to talk to you about a couple of them.  In particular, I want to talk about our Economic Action Plan and your spectacular part in its success.

“Your partnership in Canada’s Economic Action plan, the partnership, that is, of municipalities large and small with our government in accelerating the construction and repair of infrastructure projects from coast to coast to coast, your partnership has been one of the best things we have had going for us as we coped with the global recession from which we are beginning to emerge.  In fact, it was absolutely decisive, absolutely decisive.  Let’s just review what happened.

“Friends, early last year the world economy was still very much in the thick of a deep crisis.  A crisis that wasn’t made in Canada, but seemed nevertheless capable of rolling over our borders like a tidal wave and causing all manner of destruction.  Indeed, it had its impact, as you well know.  Briefly, the federal government found itself making cars, or at least for a few surreal months, that’s what it felt like.  Now, the loans we were obliged to extend to keep the industry afloat in Canada, well, General Motors has repaid them in full!  With interest, by the way, and ahead of time.  But, it was, you will all recall, an anxious time.  In fact, anxiety was overwhelming markets, creating a risk our fears would become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Something out of the ordinary needed to be done, and that something was Canada’s Economic Action Plan, a plan to use government resources to sustain economic activity to build confidence and to put people to work, a national self-help plan, if you will.

“The problem is this: It’s actually harder for Ottawa to spend money than you might suppose.  Yes, I know it looks as if we’re pretty good at it, but it’s hard to do it quickly, and at the same time to do it effectively.  It’s easy just to mail out cheques to people if you just want to say you’re spending.  Some countries chose to do that, but we concluded that that approach would be hardly effective at all, even in the short term, and would leave nothing but debt in the long term.

“We wanted to spend in a way that would leave something behind: concrete projects. But it takes time to come up with projects. To design them.  To do the studies. To sort through the choices. To get the approvals. To do all the things that, well frankly, to do all the things that for thousands of worthwhile infrastructure initiatives, had already been done in village, town and city halls, right across the country.  Great initiatives, by the way, great projects, that in all too many cases were scheduled to proceed only well into the future for one simple and very common reason: the cash to do them was not immediately available. The answer, then, was staring us in the face.

“By using our borrowing power in Ottawa, our government could advance, could move forward thousands of very worthwhile, already planned, public works programs right across the country.  This would do two things, accelerating so-called shovel-ready projects would put people to work quickly, and a quick response in this situation was the key to making a difference.  The second thing it would do was send a signal.  Anxious Canadians and the markets needed to know that someone had taken stock of the economic situation, had a plan to deal with it and would act.  Thus, Canada’s Economic Action Plan was conceived.  Ladies and gentlemen, you will recall, I’m sure, just how many different funds there were, funds from which you could  draw the cash you needed, to best meet the needs of the people who voted for you.

“I’m not going to name all those funds. But, if you take note of the overhead, you’ll see some familiar names.  There was a huge take-up.  A huge range in both size and purpose.  One of the large ones was a contribution to the revitalization of Toronto’s GO Transit.  I highlight this partly because of its size, $250 million, but I also mention it because it is a very good example of an investment that will go providing a benefit for decades after it is completed.  This was the common theme in the vast majority of projects approved.  Under the plan were things like the border crossing at St. Stephen in New Brunswick, which will stimulate trade by cutting the enormous wait times there were before.  Projects like the huge efforts undertaken through the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund to improve the quality of drinking water throughout Quebec, under the PRECO Program or moving ahead on ring roads for each of Calgary and Edmonton.  These are both massive projects that will make life easier both for commuters and for those impacted by heavy truck traffic through urban centres.  Those are the kinds of big things that went forward under the Economic Action Plan.  There were thousands of much smaller things, you know, small boat harbours, road improvements, bridges, there was Prince Edward Island’s potato museum; I remember that one.

“There have been more than 16,000 projects approved under Canada’s Economic Action Plan, so I’m not about to go through all of them.  However, here’s the bottom line.  Over a two-year period, our government, through the Action Plan, is providing $47 billion to support the economy in response to the worst global economic crisis since the Second World War.  In addition, a further $15 billion was put up by the provinces, territories and our other partners, including, most notably, Canada’s municipalities.

“Altogether, then, over two years, Canada’s Economic Action Plan has stimulated our economy with a cash injection of $62 billion! And in doing so, we have, together, built, added to and upgraded the national public works inventory.  We have done it at an unprecedented rate.  And we, together, have done it in such a way that we will all enjoy the fruits of this for many, many years to come.  Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve no doubt that many of you participated in those projects under the Action Plan-financed by the Home Renovation Tax Credit.  Well, you have also worked with your national government in the ultimate home renovation project, in renovating our larger home, Canada, through the work that’s been and is being done on the roads, on the bridges, on mass transit, in harbours, at airports, in museums, in recreation facilities and in parks.  In every corner of our national life, we are all fixing a lot more than potholes.  Aren’t we?  Now, ladies and gentlemen, I just want to deal with where we go from here.  I know that there are some, including some here, who would like all this stimulus spending extended.  We understand why.  However, we did not extend the widely popular Home Renovation Tax Credit.

“Neither are we planning to extend Canada’s Economic Action Plan.  People can’t live on adrenalin, and economies can’t live on stimulus.  We must return to the black, not drown in the red.  And the debt problems in Greece and elsewhere have reminded us that our strong fiscal position remains one of this country’s most important strengths in a still-fragile global economy.  We will see through our two-year stimulus program, and then our emergency programs will wind up on schedule so that we can begin to bring our budgets back to balance as Canadians expect us to do.  At the G-20 meeting here in Toronto next month, major economies will be looking at exit strategies from their stimulus measures, and Canada, as it has throughout this crisis, will lead the way.  Of course, the end of Canada’s Economic Action Plan will not mean that our government has no further interest in working with our municipal partners.

“On the contrary, our government has systematically provided strong support to Canadian municipalities through a vast series of programs.  These long-term programs in support of municipalities will continue.  Let me remind you of some of them.  This list is illustrative, not exhaustive.  In Budget 2006, just weeks after Canadians entrusted us with the responsibility of managing the country’s affairs, we introduced the Public Transit Capital Trust Fund.  Under this program, municipalities could qualify for one-time payments from this dedicated fund.  We did this to help municipalities meet public demands for cleaner, more efficient mass transit.  Better transit means fewer cars, fewer cars means cleaner air.  And cleaner air means people breathing easier.  These are things Canadians have told municipalities they should focus on.  We have been there to help.  In Budget 2007, we established the Building Canada Fund.  In doing so, we recognized that municipal governments often have local responsibility for infrastructure that has significance for all Canadians.

“The core national highway system, for instance.  Also, drinking water, wastewater, transit, green energy.  And so, where there is a widespread benefit, we do what we can to distribute the cost.  In Budget 2008, we extended the gas tax rebate program and we made it permanent.  We did this so that municipalities would enjoy a predictable, stable revenue stream in order to facilitate planning and development.  I could also mention things such as the Ontario Potable Water Program, a creation of PPP Canada, and the Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund as further examples of our support for municipalities.  These supports will continue even as stimulus spending ends.  Now finally, before I leave you, let me just repeat my message of hope and appreciation.

“The recovery is underway.  It is not yet completed, but all the indicators that matter are going our way.  Let’s look at a few: employment, GDP growth, retail, housing starts, the TSX.  You notice these graphs are all more or less the same shape.  They fall off sharply late in 2008, but from mid-2009, they begin to pick up, when you started moving forward so many of the projects financed by Canada’s Economic Action Plan.

“Since July of last year, the Canadian economy has created nearly 300,000 net new jobs. We are heading for three consecutive quarters of growth.  And the OECD  joined the IMF and others this week in projecting that Canada will lead the G-7 in growth over the next two years.  People, families, and investors are feeling confident enough about the future that they are starting to spend once again.  With your exceptional assistance, our plan is working.  As we all knew it would.  And let me say it again.  This country, Canada, was the last major developed economy dragged into this global recession, we will be the least affected by it, and we will emerge from it fastest and in the strongest position of them all!  Ladies and gentlemen, the lesson is clear.  When Canadians work together, when leaders at every level of government show the population that they are striving for a common goal, when government gets off peoples’ backs and starts pulling on the oars with them, then we can do great things together.  And we have.  And you have.  And I salute you.

“Thank you so much. And till next time.”