According to the most recent Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, the state of our infrastructure is at risk – in fact, it is failing. And our approach to infrastructure management has remained stagnant for decades.
Stuck in political promises and a lack of civic engagement, Canada’s approach has largely focused on quick cash injections to stimulate an underproductive economy. Stimulus infusions focus on spending money quickly on projects that have little long-term value.
The election season in Canada highlights this rambling approach. Look at election platforms over the past two decades, and you won’t find much change in terms of our approach to infrastructure investments.
Conservatives often tout energy corridors and transportation to increase trade. The NDP is looking at investments in social infrastructure, including core housing need. The Green Party is aligning itself with modernizing green infrastructure and investing in renewable energy. And the Liberals fall somewhere in between each of those priority areas.
The Achilles heel of any government
The platform‘s promises regarding infrastructure usually focus on what was not done and how the money was mismanaged. Party platforms are filled with promises to do more, but infrastructure is the Achilles heel of any government.
Party leaders need to talk about investing in infrastructure during elections, but if elected they have little money to work on, combined with a largely hypercritical public unwilling to spend money.
We cannot just blame the politicians. Our political priorities are, after all, a reflection of the ignorance of average Canadians about infrastructure. Something like “I want the road fixed, but I don’t realize how much it costs and I don’t want to pay for it” often sums up average thinking.
So how do you approach this in an election platform?
The new stimulus package from Canada’s Conservatives is very similar to the economic action plan of years past. It is also not far from the Liberals’ post-pandemic recovery.
The Harper-era Action Plan and its predecessor, the 2007 Building Canada Plan, boasted billions of dollars in investments, many of which were in infrastructure. Their electoral plan discusses “building infrastructure to advance the economy”, focusing on broadband internet and transportation.
The NDP is focused on âbuilding the infrastructure we need,â with a focus on infrastructure that makes communities more livable and helps fight climate change. If the 2021 budget is any indication, the Liberals will continue to follow a party line that pushes for economic recovery while addressing social and green infrastructure.
Infrastructure gap in Indigenous communities
One of the greatest areas of opportunity is to fill the infrastructure gap in Indigenous communities. The Liberals’ 2021 budget focused on building an inclusive economic recovery, especially for Indigenous communities.
Read more: Indigenous communities should dictate how a billion dollar infrastructure investment is spent
The Conservatives have pledged to promote “mutually beneficial conversations” between Indigenous communities and resource project developers, promising shared benefits from Canada’s resource development. The NDP promises a platform to build resilient communities, focusing on reliable infrastructure and renewable energy. But major reform is needed before any progress can be seen in reducing the infrastructure deficit.
A stimulus-driven “plug-and-play” approach is limited and short-sighted. Most government approaches focus on off-the-shelf projects, resulting in intermediate projects that do not meet the needs or demands of the community. The Liberal Party has been criticized for spending “all its time announcing and re-announcing the money it was planning to spend, but failed to put the shovel in the ground.”
Investments are not enough
Investments in community infrastructure have long been touted as essential to sustaining the economy and improving the quality of life of Canadians. While they generate GDP growth that leads to higher wages and living standards, they are often not enough.
Previous governments have spent billions, with persistent problems meeting real needs. We know that infrastructure spending doesn’t always end well, especially when disconnected from community needs and engagement.
You cannot balance the budget and close the infrastructure deficit without long-term planning that transcends political parties. Infrastructure requires strong business cases given the high capital required.
The Conservatives promised to dismantle the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), just like the NDP. The Liberals’ approach to the CIB will certainly be a political issue for all parties this election, as the CIB encourages private investment. But questions remain as to whether private investments actually translate into lower costs and faster delivery, and how effective and efficient CIB is. However, no progress can be made when we create and dismantle infrastructure programs with every election change.
The infrastructures are complex. It requires private and public investment, it must take into account our changing climate and it must be visionary in its long-term approach. Infrastructure isn’t just about accessing technology or increasing trade, it’s about community and people. We need to see through the political rhetoric and move past the excitement and lure of new jobs and funding.
What we build is not as important as why we build it. Investments in infrastructure cannot be just a campaign promise, they must be a national priority – a priority that goes beyond politics.