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Liberals call Harper government's stimulus numbers 'fiction'

OTTAWA - The Harper government's latest report card on economic stimulus spending is "fiction," opposition parties say.

OTTAWA - The Harper government's latest report card on economic stimulus spending is "fiction," opposition parties say.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's update Wednesday boasts that the government has committed 97 per cent of this year's stimulus spending, up from the 90 per cent it cited in September. And it says about 8,000 of more than 12,000 approved projects are underway.

But the government considers a project underway as soon as it has been put up for tender, and the Liberals insist that's not a proper assessment - it should be when construction starts.

In fact, they say, only about 12 per cent of the stimulus projects had started as of September.

"It's full of weasel words," Liberal finance critic John McCallum said of the update. "In terms of creating or saving jobs, it's shovels in the ground and construction work that counts, not commitments."

"They do not tell us how many jobs have been created. We know they know, because the municipalities are required to submit that information, but they won't tell us."

McCallum said the report reveals that the Conservatives are actually slashing planned funding for infrastructure this year to $2 billion from the $3 billion outlined in September's update.

The Liberals also complained that the government is sitting on important job-creation data because it's embarrassed at how few jobs have been created by the stimulus program. They pointed to a document created by the Ontario government listing stimulus job-creation statistics.

Federal officials have said they do not track the number of jobs created by the stimulus program, even though one of the key goals of the program is to put people back to work.

Infrastructure Minister John Baird told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that the Finance Department develops estimates on nationwide job creation related to stimulus projects. But jobs numbers linked to specific projects in Ontario are managed by that province through its municipalities - and the federal government has not asked for that data.

"If we accepted the information, we'd have to validate that it's correct," said Baird, noting that might take an "army" of bureaucrats.

"If you look at what's happened in the United States, it's been a hodgepodge and been very inconsistent and has not had much integrity."

Liberal critic Gerard Kennedy called the response "unacceptable."

"Why wouldn't it want job-creation numbers, and how is it making claims about job creation without having looked at the numbers that are obviously readily available?" he asked.

NDP Leader Jack Layton also questioned the veracity of the Tories.

"It's hard to believe a report that says that 97 per cent of the money is committed when you talk to the municipalities and the money hasn't arrived in their budgets so that they can make things happen. It's a fiction," he said.

And Layton chastised Harper for releasing the report while on an airplane heading to China, saying it's "not respectful to Canadians to release a report on the state of their economy in an airplane over Siberia."

"It's a pattern of disdain that Mr. Harper and his ministers seem to be showing for the institutions of Parliament."

The pace of work on the stimulus projects is of vital importance to the federal government's plan to revitalize the economy. The Harper administration has staked its fiscal reputation on the ability of the stimulus plan to quickly create or maintain almost 200,000 jobs across Canada - a number it's not on track to meet.

A fast and efficient rollout of the programs is essential to creating those jobs while the workforce needs them.

Under an agreement negotiated with the Liberals last spring, Flaherty is obliged to submit quarterly updates on how the stimulus program is working.

But the parliamentary budget officer has complained that the updates released so far are so lacking in detail and inconsistent in their format that they are not very useful.

An independent investigation by The Canadian Press has shown that stimulus money has not been targeted at areas of high unemployment. Rather, it has favoured ridings held by Tory MPs

-With files from Jennifer Ditchburn, Heather Scoffield and John Ward.

 
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