In a $237-billion federal budget, the $115 million or so Ottawa had set aside to subsidize summer jobs for students and underwrite local arts festivals almost qualifies as petty cash. But there's nothing petty about the headaches these two programs are creating for the Conservatives.
Thanks to the nature of the programs, in fact, the grumbling extends well beyond the city limits of Ottawa to just about every region in the country, upsetting everyone from small-town arts groups and local historical societies to the organizers of such major events as Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival.
In a rather extreme example of this national discontent, Quebec's National Assembly passed a unanimous motion last Friday demanding the immediate release of the province's share of the $30 million earmarked for arts and culture festivals.
It just goes to show you what kind of a mess good intentions will get you into, especially when you add some hamfisted politics. The Tories couldn't have mishandled these two little files any worse if they'd planned it.
To be fair, their hearts were probably in the right place. Given what happened to their Liberal predecessors after they squandered $250 million trying to buy the affections of Quebecers, for example, you can hardly blame the Conservatives for being a little skittish about how they handle what amounts to their own sponsorship program, the subsidies for arts and culture festivals.
But Heritage Minister Bev Oda's claim that she needs until fall to establish criteria for such grants seems excessive, especially as summer is prime festival season.
Oda made matters worse by polling Tory MPs and not those of other parties about what kinds of groups they thought should be eligible for subsidies. It might not have been a summons to the trough, but it certainly sounded like one.
The Tories also took the right tack on the Canada Summer Jobs program, but then executed it badly. The previous program gave local MPs far too much say over who in their ridings got money to hire summer students, a system that was ripe for abuse. The Tories instead devised a complex grid system administered by civil servants to decide who got the cash, and gave priority to jobs related to a student's field of study and to students who would otherwise have difficulty finding a job.
These changes are not without merit, but once again, the Tories have botched implementation. Dozens of worthy groups in ridings across Canada got rejection notes from Ottawa, sparking angry questions in the House of Commons and ugly headlines in small-town papers about autistic kids who might not get to camp and local tourist sites that might have to close.
An embarrassed Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg has promised to have administrators reassess the rejections and, indeed, some have now been reversed.
But the damage has been done. Poor planning and clumsy implementation have skewered two Tory initiatives that should have succeeded.
Tories botched two initiatives
Poor planning and clumsy implementation have skewered two Tory initiatives that should have succeeded.