OTTAWA — Spending watchdogs and Tory MPs opposed to federal funding for professional sports arenas swung at trial balloons like pinatas on Tuesday, unhappy the Conservative government hasn’t buried the idea.
Government sources say the Prime Minister’s Office continues to consider the notion of funding arenas through a little-used federal corporation called PPP Canada, which invests in projects with the private sector. In recent days, ministers have done nothing to suggest the matter is closed.
That has gone over badly with many in the Conservative camp.
“Federal funding should not go to pro-sports arenas,” said Stephen Taylor of the National Citizens Coalition, the right-of-centre group once led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “I think it should go to paying down the deficit and to grow the Canadian economy,”
“There’s no good evidence that such an investment by the government of Canada would result in the economic development that it suggests would happen in Quebec.”
Quebec City Mayor Regis Lebeaume asked last fall for money for a hockey arena and sparked the debate over a federal role. That soon morphed into talk of a national program for such facilities.
Conservative MPs who spoke privately to The Canadian Press worried the issue could create turmoil within the Tory caucus. Many thought the requests for money would balloon. If some regions felt left out, it could hurt MPs from those areas.
“The caucus really doesn’t want this to go,” said a Tory speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s not something the federal government had done before.”
Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, who has been open about his distaste for the idea, reiterated his position on his blog.
“I believe that the private sector should be mainly responsible for this type of projects,” he wrote. “Moreover, at a time when we have a big budget deficit to eliminate, financing sporting infrastructure should not be a priority.
“Providing funds to one project in Quebec City would also mean that the government has to fund other projects across the country to be fair to everyone, which would cost huge sums of money.”
Comedian Rick Mercer joked on Twitter about the potential queue for cash, with a message to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: “Toronto wants a new stadium for a non-existent NFL franchise. Show us the money Jim.”
Harper and senior ministers have been asked repeatedly whether there is any chance of federal funds for an arena. None has unequivocally said no.
Now that Quebec City has received indications from Quebecor President Pierre-Karl Peladeau that he might come up with some cash, federal involvement seems even closer. Over the weekend, Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis said the government had always hoped to participate in the arena there, but had been waiting for news of private support.
A spokesman for Josee Verner, the minister examining the Quebec City proposal, would only say that she is awaiting the outcome of negotiations between Quebec City and private investors.
Kevin Gaudet, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the government should abandon the idea once and for all.
“What happened when the prime minister left the door open is that somebody put their foot in,” Gaudet said. “The only way to solve this would have been to close the door unequivocally and say, look, the deficit is too large an albatross around our necks to be funding professional sports arenas. Period.”