VICTORIA - Premier Gordon Campbell showed why he’s everybody’s favorite visitor this week, rolling into Kelowna for a 30-minute speech and showering some $65 million on the region before guests finished dessert.
Kelowna, you get $6.5 million for a pool, complete with 1,000 spectator seats. Penticton, $9.7 million for an arena with two ice hockey surfaces - one Olympic size, and one for good old Canadian hockey. Vernon got its share a day earlier - $1.4 million for the cross-country ski club.
And, the big one, $50 million for an economic development trust for the Southern Interior, largely locally controlled.
Of course the premier can’t be everywhere. So while he was in Kelowna others got to announce that Smithers would get $1.7 million fo a second sheet of ice at the arena, Kimberley $1 million for a mining museum, Surrey $500,000 for YMCA improvements, Chemainus $350,000 to fix the wharf and Saanich $120,000 for a climbing wall.
All in, figure $70 million in spending and just another day on the unoffical pre-election campaign tour. Last week, the total was about $200 million - including a similar $50-million economic development fund for Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast.
There’s lots to be enthusiastic about in the spending announcements. The government has the money. And most of the spending, I think, offers long-term benefits.
But there is lots that’s troubling too.
Start with the fact that this was supposed to be a New Era. It was in Kelowna, back in 1996, that the Liberals staged their own campaign stunt to mock the NDP’s pre-election spending spree. They had a guy in a bad Glen Clark mask slinging gold coins off a dump truck. Campbell was there with a shovel, scraping the coins up off the pavement and throwing them back.
There are differences, of course. The NDP didn’t actually have the money they were tossing around. They said the budget was balanced, and it wasn’t.
Still, the claim was that the Liberals would be different, and they look much the same.
Then consider the fact that none of this spending has been approved by the legislature. The MLAs could be sitting now, conducting the usual detailed review of spending plans, including all these projects. Instead the Liberals shut down the house.
Consider also that much of the spending being announced now could have been provided months ago. The government had an assured surplus. If a $50-million economic fund for the Southern Interior was a good thing - and it likely is - the work could have begun last year.
Finally, consider that all this electioneering is at taxpayers’ expense. Once the official campaign starts, the Liberal party will have to send out the press releases and fly the premier and company into places like Kelowna. Right now, it’s your dime.
Campbell’s position is that the Liberals are just following their plan. Tough decisions, service cuts, improving economy, chance to spend. The proximity of the May election, he says with a small wink, is a coincidence.
Not many people will buy that claim. But it probably doesn’t matter that much politically. If the only way a community can get funding for priority projects is to wait for an election campaign, it will wait and be glad of the money. (This kind of behaviour - especially the contrast between the way the Liberals pledged to do business when they were in Opposition and the current same-old style - likely does increase general cynicism about the political process. That’s good news for the ‘yes’ side in the STV referendum.)
And all this spending activity - and the taxpayer-funded announcements - have let the Liberals control the agenda, and keep the NDP largely out of the news during this unofficial campaign.
Meanwhile, you might as well hope the premier drops by your town for lunch over the next two weeks. He brings nice gifts, even if you ultimately pay for them.
Footnote: The $50-million development trust will be spent by a board including eight municipal representatives and five provincial appointees. The idea is that people in the region can make their own decisions on investments to develop the local economy without going through the process of winning provincial approval each time.