Robert Libman: Show, don't tell — a lesson for the CAQ

The government needs to better explain its mega-investments — from the Big O roof to the Northvolt project — if it wants Quebecers to buy in.

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Monopoly is a strategic board game that allows players to make bold economic investments by spending lots of fake money. In the real world, governments invest billions in taxpayer dollars that are not fake, but our elected officials often spend as if it were, since it’s not directly from their own pockets. Sometimes, like in Monopoly, decisions pan out and other times they fail miserably, leading to bankruptcy.

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For our sake, we only hope that major government spending is supported by research and analysis with the input of experts. Far too frequently, however, this is not the case. Money is often unwisely earmarked for political reasons, or even in essential projects, governments do little to build their case or cogently justify decisions to taxpayers. When trust in government is at an all-time low, greater transparency is more critical than ever.

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This is a shortcoming of Premier François Legault that has badly damaged his Coalition Avenir Québec government:

  • Legault’s multibillion-dollar campaign promise to build a tunnel linking Lévis and Quebec City — “the third link” — wasn’t backed up with studies and analysis justifying its feasibility. His associated flip-flops on the project tipped the first domino in the CAQ’s ongoing tumble in the polls.
  • The government gambled $2.9 billion in public money to lure Swedish battery-maker Northvolt to build its factory complex here. This could be an extraordinary project if it helps position Quebec in the green economy. But again, give us the tangible details. Break down the economic return on our investment. How will the promised 3,000 jobs be filled?
  • This week, the government announced its plan to renovate the Olympic Stadium roof at a cost of $870 million (before cost-overruns). Most people’s visceral reaction when you mention the “Big Owe” is to say: “Blow the damn thing up.” One needn’t repeat the numerous reasons for this understandable cynicism. Seemingly, the government has no choice, as The Gazette’s Allison Hanes aptly called it the “least worst option.” But here again, the government must do a better job of explaining the rationale to stem criticism and maybe even generate a reluctant buy-in.

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For example, we’re told the cost to demolish the stadium is about $1 billion, largely because of its positioning above a métro tunnel. This certainly complicates matters. But other stadiums that abut major thoroughfares have been imploded, and expertise in implosion physics has advanced considerably. The complexities here may in fact be unique, as is concern about the stadium’s proximity to a residential neighbourhood, which poses risks from dust and particles emanating from an implosion. So show us the evidence!

The government could also do more to brainstorm creative scenarios for the building to diversify revenue potential. Should public-private partnerships be encouraged to incorporate commercial and retail uses, and improve the acoustics to enhance the stadium’s appeal as an entertainment venue as well as an exposition hall?

The stadium, I believe, is an architectural and engineering marvel that has come to shape Montreal’s skyline. Greater effort could be made to better highlight the iconic structure and surrounding Olympic Park attractions as a tourist destination. Montreal can’t compete with Paris or New York, but visits to the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty — which also require costly and periodic maintenance — generate hundreds of millions of dollars. We can be getting much more bang for our Big O buck.

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If this government hopes to improve its standing, it must do its homework. Instead of telling us, it must start showing us — and substantiate why these investments make sense.

At the end of a Monopoly game, if you go broke, you fold up the board and move on. But if the government blows it, we all pay a hefty long-term price.

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibman

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