a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Was Ottawa testing reaction to Quebec arena?

It is not often we see government MPs drop a huge hint that $180 million in public funds is going to be spent on a hockey arena only to have the Prime Minister pour cold water on the project less than a week later.

Yet this is what appears to have happened between Sept. 8 and Sept. 13. So what were the Tories up to?

Was it simply a photo opp that got out of hand? Or was the Harper government testing public reaction or trial ballooning, as political professionals call it?

A new arena apparently is needed to bring back NHL hockey to Quebec City, which happens to be the core area of the government's support in the province. The provincial and municipal governments have agreed to jointly provide 55 per cent of the $400-million cost. Ottawa is being nudged for the remaining 45 per cent.

The Conservative MPs from the Quebec City area, sporting vintage Quebec Nordiques sweaters, were on hand for a photo opp celebrating a consultant's report that concluded it was viable to bring back an NHL team.

But the idea of Ottawa forking out $180 million didn't seem viable to many people, particularly among Tories. Maxime Bernier, the Tory backbencher from the Beauce region of Quebec and a libertarian, ridiculed the idea. So did Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

Within days it was clear the idea was not going to fly politically in the rest of the country. Harper waded in to say it is up to the private sector to fund pro hockey, not the taxpayer. The government also let it be known that Harper had no idea his MPs were going to don the Nordique sweaters.

It is entirely possible Harper didn't know about the sweaters. It wouldn't be the first time an organizer of a media event got carried away. But it is unlikely he didn't know about the participation of his MPs since he took four days to nix the idea of federal funding.

The Tories are desperately trying to hang on to their handful of seats in Quebec in the next election. Hockey borders on a religion in the province and Harper has plenty of reason to be testing the idea of funding an arena.

The government even acknowledges it has been talking to local officials about how Ottawa can help bring NHL hockey to Quebec City, which is likely why the Conservatives are up two percentage points in the province, according to the latest Leger poll taken Sept. 13-17.

Stay tuned sports fans. We likely haven't heard the last of federal funding to bring the NHL back to Quebec City.

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