Baloney Meter: have more than 60% of infrastructure projects begun?
Sometimes the same set of numbers can tell very different stories
"We have approved more than 1,200 projects. I would like to tell the member that more than 60 per cent of those projects are currently underway, creating opportunities for Canadians."
— Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Feb. 7.
There is a saying that numbers do not lie, but sometimes — especially in politics — the same set of numbers can end up telling very different stories.
Consider the case of an exchange between Conservative MP Diane Watts and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Watts, who represents the B.C. riding of South Surrey — White Rock, stood up to ask about some numbers the federal government had shared through its online open data portal — that construction had not yet started on 96 per cent of the infrastructure projects the Liberal government had announced.
"Announcements do not create jobs," said Watts.
Sohi first responded with some high-level platitudes about how yes, their infrastructure investments were creating jobs and doing other wonderful things for the middle class, but then he provided a very different percentage of projects that have started construction.
"More than 60 per cent of those projects are currently underway, creating opportunities for Canadians."
So, who was right? Watts, with her 96 per cent? Or Sohi, with his 60 per cent?
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Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of "no baloney" to "full of baloney" (complete methodology below).
Sohi's statement earns a ranking of "a little baloney," — even though, in their own ways, both politicians were right.
Read on to find out why.
To add to the confusion, the Conservatives and Sohi arrived at their conflicting conclusions while working with the same data set — a list of projects nationwide that have been approved by Infrastructure Canada, which is available online.
The Conservatives say they arrived at their numbers by taking all the projects the Liberals have approved since the 2016 budget and then calculating how many of them have, according to the data, already begun construction.
That would be 48 projects, or only four per cent of the total.
Brook Simpson, a spokesman for Sohi, said the minister was including all the projects he approved since the Liberal government was sworn in, because even if some were already in the pipeline under pre-existing programs, they were approved by the new government.
That brings the number of approved projects to 1,270.
The more important difference, though, is that Sohi was not looking at actual construction dates, but at forecasted construction start dates.
That figure shows that 797 of the 1,270 projects — amounting to nearly 63 per cent — were due to have begun by now.
Simpson said they were relying on forecasted construction start dates because the actual construction start dates are updated too long after the fact to be useful at this point.
That is because in most cases, the province or territory that signed the agreement to receive the funding has six months to report on its progress.
"In most cases now, we haven't hit the six months yet," Simpson said.
Some of the reporting might take even longer than that.
The Canadian Press was able to find more than 250 examples of projects approved through one of the two new infrastructure funds the Liberals brought in with the 2016 budget — the clean water and wastewater fund and the public transit infrastructure fund — that did not mention an actual construction start date, even though the six-month reporting timeline and the forecasted construction start date have already come and gone.
"With the federal government owning only two per cent of infrastructure across the country, we rely on our partners to submit reporting on progress and we are working with them to ensure they do so in a timely manner," Simpson wrote in an email responding to follow-up questions.
"When agreements are signed, we trust that the start dates submitted by our partners will be adhered to and historically this has been the case for (Infrastructure Canada) projects," he wrote.
"Reporting can take time — especially for smaller communities — and our provincial/territorial partners need to gather information from their municipalities before it is submitted to us," he wrote.
He does not expect any big surprises.
"All of these are signed and official agreements and there is every reason to believe that they are starting as they said they would."
What the experts say
Clark Somerville, the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the federal government was right to calculate things this way.
"The progress reporting coming out of Infrastructure Canada is the best we've seen yet, using local data about forecasted construction timelines," Somerville wrote in an emailed statement.
Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, said the information could be useful as a leading indicator of where things are headed.
But he also said there is confusion because of the start dates debate and because the Liberals are including projects that fell under pre-existing infrastructure programs brought in by the Conservative government — amounting to about $3.3 billion of the $5.9 billion total in federal contributions for those approved projects.
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"Naturally, political people, they want to present the most positive numbers," said Page, who is now president and CEO of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa.
He pointed out that the current parliamentary budget officer released his report last week saying that of the $13.6 billion in infrastructure money announced in the 2016 budget — and slated to be spent through March 2018 — departments have only identified $4.6 billion worth of projects.
"The data that people need to see is: is money flowing on these projects? Are shovels being turned over? Is there real construction activity going on? Is there additional employment happening in construction industries, and other industries, because of this?" Page said.
"A more powerful indicator will be the percentage of projects that have been completed, so we have a sense that money is actually really being put into the economy."
As Simpson explained, Sohi was talking about forecasted construction start dates when he asserted that more than 60 per cent of the projects approved are underway, which is a technically accurate counterpoint to the technical point that Watt had based her question on.
Still, as Page pointed out, it does not provide the full picture to the spirit in which her question was asked, which went on to focus on when the rest of the money would flow.
For these reasons, Sohi's statement scores a rating of "a little baloney."
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
No baloney — the statement is completely accurate.
A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.
Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.
A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.
Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate.