Funding rink in Quebec just too risky

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Sun Media, Friday, March 18, 2011

Having been down the slippery slope of whether the feds should help fund the new hockey arena in Quebec City, Stephen Harper could have given Michael Ignatieff some good advice--don't go there.

The Conservatives looked at this from every angle, and couldn't find a way of finessing it in the Quebec City region without paying a huge price in the rest of the country.

In the beginning, the political cover for Ottawa participating in the arena project was to support Quebec City's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. But the cover was blown by the infamous photo-op of eight Conservative MPs from the region, including three cabinet ministers, wearing blue Nordiques jerseys and giving a thumbs-up.

If they'd worn Team Canada jerseys to support the Olympic narrative, there might have been a different ending to the story.

The blue-jerseys pic might have been front-page news in Quebec City. The problem was it was also on front pages in the rest of the country. Within days, every city with an arena or stadium project was demanding the same treatment as Quebec City.

Inside the Conservative caucus, the divisions were painful. The Quebec caucus, mostly from the 418 area in and around Quebec City, pushed the fed-funding notion very hard. But Conservative MPs from the rest of the country said they'd never heard such blowback on any single issue since they took office five years ago.

There's no bigger hockey fan in the Tory caucus than Peterborough MP Dean del Mastro, and no one more diligent in keeping in touch with constituents. "I've never seen anything like it," he says.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty looked at creative ways of funding the Quebec City project in the budget--after all, $100-million is chump change in a $300-billion budget. But in the end he couldn't justify it.

Harper had the Quebec caucus around to 24 Sussex Drive for dinner last Wednesday to convey a final decision--no money for arenas, in Quebec City or anywhere else. Gulp. He could lose as many as six of his 11 Quebec caucus members as a result.

Now that a decision has been made, Harper and his colleagues are going out hard on it. As House Leader John Baird puts it: "We are not financing rinks owned by billionaires so millionaires can play in them."

Yet Ignatieff chose this moment to announce in Quebec City that a Liberal government would fund the Quebec City and similar projects on the grounds they were also cultural centres. Harper, said Iggy, "said no to the arena. And I say yes, so there's a clear distinction there."

It's hard to know what Ignatieff will get out of it in Quebec City, since the Liberals are not competitive in 418, a two-way battleground between the Bloc and the Conservatives. In the rest of the country, the Tories will push back hard.

Harper already did Wednesday, when he showed up in Quebec City to announce up to $50-million in upgrades for the airport.

"We will not spend taxpayers' money on a professional sports arena here in Quebec City," he said. Nor, he added, "in Regina, Halifax, Edmonton, or my own city of Calgary. You either fund them all or you don't fund any."

Iggy just skated himself into the boards.

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