A vaccine that will help snap Canada’s economy out of its COVID-19 coma can’t come soon enough.
Until then, post-pandemic recovery will rely heavily on federal stimulus spending to reawaken our injured economy.
For policy-makers, the goal Is to identify infrastructure projects that put Canadians back to work quickly and boost spending.
Then comes the hard part: making sure red tape and competing interests don’t prevent these projects from getting out the door.
There’s no shortage of good intentions about how federal stimulus funding should be used to counter the clobber of COVID-19.
The newly formed “Task Force for a Resilient Recovery,” an advocacy group of prominent thinkers has made “building back better” its credo. It will spend the next two months developing recommendations on how governments can support “jobs, infrastructure and growth that will keep Canada competitive in the clean economy of the 21st century.”
It’s one voice in a sefemingly expanding choir.
Since mid-April, federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna has been collaborating with the provinces to streamline a small portion of largely unspent federal infrastructure funds, maximizing the federal contribution to 80 per cent, and targeting projects that will benefit all Canadians.
McKenna is keen on green-lighting projects that can provide stimulus and long-term economic and environmental benefits such as retrofitting and upgrading municipal or provincial buildings, health care facilities and recreational projects including parks, trails and bike lanes. These are projects that could start quickly and create immediate jobs, at least in theory.
But, here’s where Mckenna’s intended goal of greater flexibility, quick approvals and project completions by the end of the 2021 construction season could go off the rails. Many groups want to expand the scope of “shovel ready” projects to meet their own special agendas. Although many “shovel ready” projects have already been fully funded and pre-approved based on their benefits to communities, there are calls to attach inflexible and potentially costly quotas for hiring from underrepresented groups and setting unrealistic project requirements. “Shovel worthy” projects are also being promoted to fit with the larger plan of reducing emissions. Adding additional goals, and more complexity and bureaucracy, only makes it harder to get needed infrastructure projects going.
While Canada’s goals of reducing emissions is laudable, those efforts should not siphon-off funding that could be put to better use on infrastructure projects with the primary purpose of creating jobs and directly supporting the livelihoods of Canadians.
With millions of Canadians out of work and stressed by looming mortgages or rent to pay, this is no time to get sidetracked by competing social and political agendas.
As the country looks to the construction industry to continue to lead the way in rebuilding a healthier economy, we offer this advice to help keep the process focused.
First, government funding should be applied to actual “shovel ready” projects that are truly regional, and not Montreal or GTA centric. Secondly, the criteria for these projects should not be skewed only in favour of big construction companies.
Small and medium-sized contractors and subcontractors should have an equal shot at building. And projects should be streamlined, not stalled by regulatory red tape or partisan politics as we’ve seen in B.C., where only members of the Building Trades unions are allowed to build key public projects.
In B.C., where public infrastructure costs are skyrocketing, and qualified workers and companies are shut out of building important infrastructure projects, this province serves as the shining example of what not to do.
It’s the model of missed opportunity, unfairness and squandered public tax dollars that should never be replicated.
Getting “shovel ready” projects out the door doesn’t have to be complicated. There’s no need to layer on a laundry list of criteria, put up more hurdles and hold up federal stimulus funding that Canadians need right now. Infrastructure projects in and of themselves are the community/social benefit in this time of COVID-19.
So, let’s get moving. Let’s get infrastructure projects underway in our neighbourhoods and communities where they can actually do some good.
Paul de Jong is President of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.