10 September 2010
For the past two days, I have received several demands to clarify my position on the project to build a new arena in Quebec City, which would get 100% of its funding from governments. I expressed my main reservations about it yesterday in an interview with a Beauce radio station (the daily paper Le Soleil published a summary of what I said in an article this morning).
As many people have told me, I can’t travel the country and make speeches about individuals and governments being responsible, about living within our means and reducing government intervention, while refusing to take a clear stand on an issue where these principles squarely come into play.
The hard reality is that we have just been through a global economic crisis – which remains very preoccupying and is likely not over – and governments in both Quebec City and Ottawa are heavily indebted. Our government has just posted a huge $56-billion deficit and the priority is to get back to a balanced budget through reductions in our own programs, and avoid by all means getting involved in risky financial ventures.
I was not at all impressed by the Ernst & Young study, which concluded that the project would be “profitable” – but only on the assumption that governments provide full funding for the construction as well as the repairs and renovations that will be necessary over the next 40 years. That’s a deceptive way of putting it. The conclusion should rather be that the project is simply not profitable and will constitute a financial burden for taxpayers for decades to come, even in the best scenario. That’s why not a single private player has been found to invest in it.
Finally, one of the arguments we’ve heard most often in Quebec City in support of public funding is that “Montreal got such and such investment,” “Toronto benefitted for this program,” or “Vancouver got that amount of money.” Since our governments have been throwing money in all directions for decades, there is obviously no way to refute such arguments.
But the fact that we are caught in this unending spiral of spending and debt accumulation is precisely what has brought us in today’s intolerable situation. It is the same dynamic which pits Canadians against one another in the hope of getting a share of the big pile of money which constitutes the public treasury.
We can see the usual pattern already. If Quebec City gets the $175 million that it is asking from Ottawa to build its arena, other cities and regions of the country will want the same treatment, using fairness as an excuse. At the end of the day, we may be forced to spend several times that amount of money in order to treat everyone fairly.
As the great French economist Frédéric Bastiat wrote, “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavours to live at the expense of everybody else.” When such large amounts are in play, it is impossible to calculate exactly who has received how much. We would need to go beyond a single file and take into account all public spending items, going as far back as possible.
That’s what Quebec separatists like to do. They keep telling us that Quebec has been on the losing side of the financial equation and that Ottawa has systematically been favouring Ontario for more than a century. Meanwhile, people in the rest of the country believe that Quebec is the spoiled child of the federation. Each region can point towards many examples to nurture its frustrations. It is a pointless debate which can only divide our country.
This dynamic has to stop one way or another. We cannot continue in this way to pass on to our children the bills for all the projects that we cannot afford to pay ourselves. We cannot continue to distribute ever larger amounts of money to please everyone and buy social peace, while refusing to face the consequences. We cannot ask governments to manage our money in a responsible manner while at the same time demanding that they devote some more money to an irresponsible venture that will benefit us.
I too share the dream of again seeing a professional hockey team come back to play in our region and I sincerely hope that a way will be found to make this dream come true. But dreaming does not make the hard financial reality go away. It’s nice to have dreams, but when you use borrowed money to achieve them and act as if money grows on trees, you may have a brutal awakening. For all these reasons, I cannot in good conscience support this project.