A modest merry Christmas

As Canada’s economic outlook is dissected in the weeks before the new year, expectation and a sense of entitlement seem to hang everywhere.

As Canada’s economic outlook is dissected in the weeks before the new year, expectation and a sense of entitlement seem to hang everywhere.

As usual, the messages are mixed and messy. No economic analysis or forecast can be straightforward.

And when you throw in the posturers, political provocateurs, naysayers and natterers, it’s difficult to find the substance in the message.

Prime minister Stephen Harper says Canada’s economic action plan has been a rousing success. He told a news conference on Thursday that “nearly 90 per cent of infrastructure projects will be done by the ambitious deadline that we set out” and that since July 2009, more than 420,000 jobs have been created through 23,000 projects.

That news came a day after a survey report of recipient municipalities, showing they were unimpressed. The survey showed that just 33 per cent of municipalities believed the infrastructure funding was responsible for employment growth, 43 per cent saw no impact and 21 per cent saw fewer jobs.

But wait, another voice wants to be heard.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says the ruling Conservatives got it right — but that the job creation numbers were inflated.

“The Economic Action Plan was a partnership between governments to protect Canadians during a global crisis — and that partnership has delivered results,” said federation president Hans Cunningham.

Cunningham contends that 100,000 Canadians were able to keep their jobs because of the program, and the role of both the federal government and municipalities (which contributed $10 billion themselves).

Any way you cut it, the money has gone into jobs. Perhaps it’s just a matter of job retention, rather than new job creation, but keeping Canadians employed and spending keeps other Canadians gainfully employed. The economy at its most basic really is a cyclical cash distribution system; an inequitable one, certainly, and some parties will always grab more of the pot than they deserve, but at least the money is being put to use.

But the $16-billion gravy train is coming to an end. Ottawa says 90 per cent of projects have been completed, and the government has agreed to extend the funding window in order to get other approved projects to the finish line.

But after that?

A glance at Red Deer city council’s discussions about capital spending next year should tell you what comes next: very little, except hope that the forecasters have it right.

Mix in the disappointing response to the United Way of Central Alberta’s 2010 campaign, and the struggles of other local charitable causes, and you should know that the optimism is not yet widespread.

Red Deer council approved an 84-item capital budget this week that totals just over $86 million. That doesn’t come close to the $473 million in capital expenditures approved in the last boom budget, created in 2008 for 2009 spending.

The bulk of the items on the Red Deer list are essential: new infrastructure and upgrades needed to allow the city to grow and to create the conditions that will encourage economic resurgence when it happens.

When and how it happens remains uncertain, but there are hopeful signs — or at least, optimistic voices.

The Fraser Institute, a right-wing policy think-tank, says Alberta once again has the nation’s best investment climate. Factors like low taxes, a flexible job market and minimal bureaucracy mean businesses should once again want to establish and expand here, says a report released this week.

But it is important to keep a broader perspective: no economic growth can be sustained in isolation. As long as world economic conditions remain sluggish, only so much Albertan or Canadian growth is possible.

So our expectations and our sense of entitlement should remain muted. A modest Christmas might be in order.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.