Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

A Gazebo for Tony

Everyone who reads a newspaper knows that the resort town of Huntsville will play host to the world's economic leaders later this month. They also know the G8 summit will be fantastically expensive. And they are paying the bill. But they probably haven't heard of a little town called Orrville. And for good reason. It's a bit grand to describe Orrville as a "town." Or a "hamlet," for that matter. It's really just a cluster of houses at the intersection of a regional road and a minor highway about an hour's drive west of Huntsville. The few people who live there work in Parry Sound, 20 minutes to the west. In Scandinavian fairytales, "east of the sun, west of the moon" is the traditional description of a place so far-off it's a little beyond the middle of nowhere. Being east of Parry Sound and west of Huntsville, Orrville is somewhat closer to the middle of nowhere. I speak from personal experience. As a teenager living in another flyspeck near Parry Sound, I had good friends who lived in Orrville and I spent many a happy summer day ambling down the middle of roads that were seldom troubled by traffic. Mostly, our ambling took us to the swimming hole, or to the general store, which stood at the junction of the highway and the road. The store was torn down long ago. Nothing replaced it. So right there, at what would be the centre of town, if it were indeed a town, is a vacant lot where weeds grow and time slowly passes. Or rather, there was a vacant lot. This summer, something remarkable happened in Orrville. Where once there was a vacant lot, there is now the "Joseph Hannon Memorial Park," a swathe of shrubs, fresh sod, and landscaping stones. At the centre is a lovely little gazebo. There is also a familiar sign. This park, the sign declares, is part of "Canada's Economic Action Plan" -- the multibillion-dollar government fund that "stimulates" the economy by paying for shrubs and gazebos and signs announcing that the government has paid for shrubs and gazebos. But according to the sign, the park is more than just a key component of the government's grand economic strategy. It is also one of the government's "G8 Infrastructure Improvements." The cost to the federal government: a hair under $100,000. While the connection between the park and the G8 summit may not be readily apparent, it is perhaps not inconceivable that the president of France or the prime minister of Japan may decide to take an unscheduled break from the weighty matters under discussion in Huntsville, get in a car, drive an hour west, and stop to have a cigarette. Should that occur, the gazebo will be quite handy. Some may applaud the government for being so meticulously prepared. But risk analysts generally treat as impossible any outcome that has less than a one-in-a-million chance of occurring, and so I think we can safely assume the good citizens of Orrville will never have to provide Nicolas Sarkozy with a nice place to enjoy a Gauloises. That doesn't leave much of a return on the government's 100 grand. Raccoons may occasionally seek shelter in the gazebo during inclement weather, I suppose. And local teenagers will finally have a convenient place to sneak a smoke. Which is something. But the only real benefit will go to the local member of Parliament, one Tony Clement. Clement may be a big shot in Ottawa, but politics in his riding is all about good old boys taking care of business and each other. And Tony Clement isn't a good old boy. He's an outsider parachuted into a place that doesn't think much of outsiders, which is a big reason why he was first elected by the frighteningly thin margin of 28 votes. But as minister of industry, and general Ottawa heavyweight, Clement has access to bags and bags of money. And the best way to get in tight with a good old boy, aside from marrying his sister, is to give him a bag of cash to spend. Clement has been doing this enthusiastically, which is a big reason why he was re-elected by the considerably more comfortable margin of 11,000 votes. No offence to Joseph Hannon, whoever he was, but this politicking, not some urgent need of the G8, or Keynesian economic strategy, is the sole explanation for the creation of his memorial park. As such, it is the perfect symbol of the Conservatives' fiscal record. Stephen Harper, Tony Clement, and the rest talk like fiscal conservatives, but they govern like American conservatives -- which is to say, they cut unpopular taxes, boost popular spending, and pay for it all with credit cards issued by foreign banks. To a true fiscal conservative, this is an abomination. Even the old tax-and-spend formula is preferable. At least that's pay-as-you-go. Of course the Conservatives' borrow-and-spend approach could be defensible if the spending were essential, particularly if it delivered benefits to the future generations that will pay the bill. But that can't be said about much of what the Conservatives blow money on. "The laundry list of spending in this budget shows scant evidence of any thinking at all," complained fiscal hawk Andrew Coyne about last year's budget. Coyne was right, at least in terms of good management of public finances and the well-being of citizens. Borrowing money from China to build a gazebo on a vacant lot not far from the middle of nowhere is sheer shrieking madness. But in political terms, it's perfectly rational. And political terms are the only terms this government cares about. ***** On June 3, 2010, the Citizen published the following letter in response to this column: In a recent column, Dan Gardner chose to dismiss with a condescending wave of his hand the hard-working residents of Parry Sound-Muskoka as "good old boys" who would benefit from federal spending. His inability to understand that a majority of people in my riding are looking forward to hosting the world this June demonstrates a sad lack of understanding of the region and the people living and working here. The fact is 25,000 international guests will occupy rooms from North Bay to Toronto during the G8. With this in mind, Infrastructure Canada has made efforts to ensure that the region represents our nation with its best foot forward. I am a proud resident of Port Sydney, and it is my honour to work hard for the residents of my riding. By listening to their needs and concerns, not the ranting of a cynical columnist in Ottawa, I am able to fulfil my duty as their elected representative. Tony Clement, Ottawa MP Parry Sound-Muskoka Federal Minister of Industry