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 participate.

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Monopoly is a strategic board game that allows players to make bold financial investments by spending a lot of fake money. In the real world, governments spend billions in taxpayer dollars that aren’t fake, but our elected officials often spend as if they are, since it doesn’t come directly from their own pockets. Sometimes, like in Monopoly, decisions work and other times they fail miserably, leading to bankruptcy.

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For our sake, we only hope that major government expenditures are supported by research and analysis with expert input. However, all too often this is not the case. Money is often allocated recklessly for political reasons, or even on essential projects, governments do little to make their case or convincingly justify their 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 deficiency of Prime Minister François Legault that has seriously damaged his Coalition Avenir Québec government:

  • Legault’s multimillion-dollar campaign promise to build a tunnel linking Lévis and Quebec City – “the third link” – was not supported. with studies and analyzes that justify its viability. His changes associated with the project tipped the first domino in the CAQ’s current slide in the polls.
  • The government gambled $2.9 billion in public money to attract Swedish battery maker Northvolt to build its manufacturing 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 3,000 promised jobs be filled?
  • This week, the government announced its plan to re-roof the Olympic Stadium at a cost of $870 million (before cost overruns). Most people’s gut reaction when the “Great Duty” is mentioned is to say, “Blow up that damn thing.” There is no need to repeat the many reasons for this understandable cynicism. The government apparently has no choice, as The Gazette’s Allison Hanes aptly called it the “least worst option.” But here, too, the government must do a better job of explaining the rationale to curb criticism and perhaps even generate reluctant acceptance.

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For example, we’re told the cost of demolishing the stadium is approximately $1 billion, largely due to its location above a subway tunnel. This certainly complicates things. But other stadiums abutting major thoroughfares have imploded, and experience in implosion physics has advanced considerably. Indeed, the complexities here may be unique, as may concerns about the stadium’s proximity to a residential neighborhood, which poses risks of dust and particles emanating from an implosion. So show us the evidence!

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

I think the stadium is an architectural and engineering marvel that has come to shape Montreal’s skyline. Greater efforts could be made to better highlight the iconic structure and surrounding attractions of the Olympic Park 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 expensive and regular maintenance, generate hundreds of millions of dollars. We can get a lot more for our money from Big O.

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If this government hopes to improve its position, it must do its homework. Instead of telling us, you need to start showing us and justifying why these investments make sense.

At the end of a game of Monopoly, if you screw up, you fold the board and move on. But if the government screws it up, we will all pay a high price in the long run.

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

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