Senate committee slams Liberals' lack of infrastructure spending plan

The national finance committee says the government could end up wasting the money without a detailed strategy to dole it out

Finance Minister Bill Morneau receives applause as he delivers the government's fall economic update in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau receives applause as he delivers the government’s fall economic update in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

OTTAWA – A Senate committee warns that the Liberal government could end up wasting billions in new infrastructure money unless it develops a detailed strategy to dole out the cash in the coming years.

The national finance committee said in some cases, the only metrics that Infrastructure Canada uses to measure success are the number of projects completed and the value attached to them — how much money goes out the door rather than what the money is buying.

Absent a strategic plan, the government can’t develop meaningful objectives or performance measures, leaving parliamentarians and Canadians in the dark about whether the infrastructure program will meet the Liberals’ goal of growing the economy.

The committee’s report released Tuesday morning warned the Liberals to invest the right amount in infrastructure and invest in the right places — particularly in trade infrastructure.

The report recommended the government create a single window for funding, instead of spreading it across multiple departments and agencies, and take into account the needs of municipalities when deciding how money will be spent.

“We have to become more focused and get back on track, but it has to be something that people can understand and execute,” said committee chairman Larry Smith. “It’s very tough when you have this number of programs.

“This is what this is all about: how do we execute better? This is not us saying, ‘you’re not doing a good job.’ That’s not the issue. The issue is this is a key to the future of our country.”

A spokesman for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the government will release its long-term infrastructure plan with the Liberals’ “vision, outcomes, indicators and program details” some time this spring. Brook Simpson said the government will work with municipalities and parliamentarians on the design of the plan.

The federal government is set to dole out $186 billion in infrastructure money over the coming decade, with almost half of that stemming from the Liberals’ new infrastructure plan.

The first phase of that program was aimed at renovating and repairing existing infrastructure in order to get some stimulus money into the economy while the Liberals worked on the plan for the second phase of the program, valued at around $80 billion.

The Liberals say that money will be aimed at large, transformational projects that will also help grow the economy.

The government has been slow to allocate the first tranche of money from its infrastructure program to provinces and cities. The Senate committee found that as of December, 308 projects worth $806 million had actually started, far below the 719 projects worth $1.5 billion that the government said were to immediately start after the 2016 budget.

The slow pace of project work puts Liberal economic projections at risk. But the slow pace also has a political advantage, as projects may still be underway in 2019 when voters head to the polls.

The committee said problem is symptomatic of an overly complex funding system, where too many department and agencies are responsible for slices of the infrastructure pie. Cities find the federal funding web confusing to navigate, the report said.

Simpson said the government has already started streamlining approval processes and tried to simplify funding programs by letting provincial and local official prioritize projects.