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ANALYSIS: Conservatives claim Liberals broke rules with summer spending tour handing out billions

The Liberal government has been rolling out new spending plans across the country, hoping to get re-elected come fall's federal election.

Liberal MPs and ministers finished their summer with a flourish of spending announcements that, in many cases, focused on regions of the country where the governing party will be most active seeking votes in the coming election.

The spending tour — there were more than a hundred events last week alone in which Liberal MPs made 2,970 new spending commitments — brought an official complaint to Canada’s Elections Commission from the Conservatives that the Liberals were inappropriately campaigning on the public purse.

“The Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and Parliamentary Secretaries have been criss-crossing the country making partisan announcements where they have been weaving campaign narratives into official government speeches and news releases,” Conservative MP Peter Kent wrote in his complaint to the commissioner. “Of equal, if not greater concern, is the fact that they have invited non-elected Liberal Party of Canada candidates to attend these official, taxpayer-funded government announcements.”

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Kent claims this behaviour violates election finance laws.

The Conservatives, though, engaged their own flurry of spending announcements just before the 2015 election, though the Liberals have easily eclipsed what the Conservatives did.

READ MORE: Trudeau pledges $1.2 billion for new tramway, expanded transit network in Quebec City

For example, two Liberal MPs in Alberta — Randy Boissonnault and Kent Hehr — made 69 and 59 new spending commitments, respectively, just in the last month worth just under $100 million.

Boissonnault was given the task of handing out grants to women-led businesses and to arts and culture groups in northern Alberta. Eleven of those grant recipients were in his riding of Edmonton Centre. Hehr also provided grants to arts and culture groups in Calgary and southern Alberta as well as for some programs to promote Indigenous language use, for a housing project, to a clean-tech business, and for a major Calgary infrastructure project. Of the spending commitments Hehr made in August, 17 of the funding recipients are in his riding of Calgary Centre.

For August, Boissonnault and Hehr made the most spending commitments of any MP who is not a cabinet minister.

Overall, for the month of August, the Liberals made 4,545 new spending commitments worth a combined $12.8 billion. That compares to the Conservative record of 604 new spending commitments worth a combined $1.4 billion in the month prior to the August 2, 2015 election call.

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WATCH: 2 Toronto transit projects net $1 billion in federal funds

2 Toronto transit projects net $1 billion in federal funds
2 Toronto transit projects net $1 billion in federal funds

In the last month, the Liberals have announced new spending on everything from chronic fatigue syndrome research to conservation projects to grants to steel and aluminum manufacturers to buy new equipment.

This data is drawn from an Ottawa Spends database maintained exclusively by Global News that has tracked spending announcements now through three different Parliaments.

Here’s the regional breakdown for Liberal spending activity last month:

  • Quebec: 1,396 new spending commitments worth a combined $2.7 billion.
  • Ontario: 284 commitments worth $1.93 billion.
  • BC: 406 worth $833 million.
  • Nova Scotia: 117 worth $692 million
  • Alberta: 519 worth $619 million.
  • Nunavut: 17 worth $385 million.
  • Saskatchewan: 840 worth $223 million.
  • New Brunswick: 397 worth $215 million.
  • Manitoba: 66 worth $121 million.
  • Northwest Territories: 31 worth $111 million.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: 330 worth $102 million.
  • Prince Edward Island: 126 worth $70 million.
  • Yukon: 10 worth $52 million.
There were 14 spending commitments worth a combined $3.7 billion where the spending will be distributed across two or more provinces. The biggest of those was an announcement on August 16 that the Canadian Army will buy 360 light-armoured vehicles which, while they are made in a factory in London, Ont., use parts and materials manufactured at facilities across the country.

READ MORE: Liberals continue spending frenzy on eve of election call — $2.8B last week

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One of the biggest grant programs active in August was the federal Gas Tax Fund program. This program, established by the Liberals in 2005, provides funding to 3,600 municipalities across the country on a per capita basis. The 2019 budget contained a special one-time “top-up” of this fund.

In the last month, Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced how much each municipality in Newfoundland and LabradorP.E.I., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. would receive. He also confirmed gas tax fund transfers for the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The first installments of this year’s gas tax fund transfers for communities in Ontario and Manitoba have not yet been announced.

The funding commitments announced in August through the gas tax fund transfers total $1.87 billion.

A note about the Ottawa Spends Database project:

Some wonder how these can be described as new spending commitments when they were passed in the budget. Others take the flipside of that question and think these are spending commitments that have not been part of the budget process. In fact, these are budgeted new spending commitments.

Federal budgets typically contain a government’s proposal for many different spending programs. Then, once Parliament approves the budget, it’s up to the minister responsible for administering those spending programs to put the program in place and begin making new spending commitments from that spending program.

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So, for example, in the 2018 budget, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains was authorized to begin a spending program called the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund (WEF). Bains was given $20 million a year by Parliament to make grants of $100,000 to businesses owned or led by women.

READ MORE: NOTEBOOK — How we use Twitter to keep track of thousands of federal government spending announcements

But Parliament was not provided with the list of each individual business that would receive these grants. The grant recipients would be decided later through an application process. Then, throughout the year, grants would be approved giving Bains or one of his representatives — recently it’s often been Small Business Minister Mary Ng — a chance to visit a region of the country and hand out these grants to individual businesses.

So, when Ng on August 27 visited Surrey, B.C., to hand out $100,000 WEF grants to 11 women-owned businesses, these were all new spending commitments from a budgeted spending program.

The Ottawa Spends Database then logs these as 11 new spending commitments and, where possible, makes a decision about what riding these businesses are located in.

The Ottawa Spends Database also only tracks new spending commitments when a press release is issued announcing the new spending commitment and only does so when a spending recipient is identified. That means that spending on government transfer programs such as the Canada Child Benefit or employment insurance benefits are not tracked.

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So far, for the length of the 42nd Parliament, Liberal MPs and ministers have issued press releases announcing 20,000 new spending commitments for a combined total of $78.7 billion.

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