February 8, 2006

Government Relations

Leaner cabinet combines key portfolios

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fresh-minted 26-member cabinet is a leaner organization that combines some key portfolios directly influencing the Canadian construction industry.

At first blush, industry groups approved of the merger of the Transport and Infrastructure portfolios.

“In the past, we’ve perceived a bit of a rivalry between the two and the merger is definitely beneficial,” says Michael Atkinson, President of the Canadian Construction Association (CCA).

Michael Atkinson

“Hopefully the merged portfolio will provide less of an opportunity for diverging policies.”

Atkinson says Pontiac MP Lawrence Cannon, who now holds the portfolio, is already well known to the CCA — its Ottawa headquarters are a stone’s throw from the Western Quebec riding.

“We’re looking forward to meeting him in his new position and discussing how his party will follow through on its promises to invest in highways, while maintaining current federal infrastructure programs.

“As with any new cabinet, there’s a lot of work ahead to make sure they understand the concerns of the construction industry, and how the industry can help them to follow through on their goals and promises.”

The Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC) likes the combined Transportation/Infrastructure portfolio, says association president Claude-Paul Boivin.

“This makes a lot of sense. Highways had become the poor cousin to infrastructure and government was increasingly reluctant to expand its efforts beyond cities,” he says.

“Maybe having a smaller cabinet will speed things up, though it will be a challenge for cabinet ministers to make themselves accessible to national associations.”

The ACEC is also enthusiastic about the re-integration of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, says Boivin. The association has encouraged the federal government to deliver foreign aid, particularly in the area of infrastructure, through Canadian companies.

“Canadian International Development Agency policy should be reflective and supportive of Canadian trade goals and foreign affairs overseas,” he says.

Pat Dillon, business manager of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario says he’s pleased to see familiar Ontario faces like Jim Flaherty in the Finance portfolio and John Baird on the Treasury Board.

“It’s too early to tell what direction the government is going in, but we’ll make approaches to meet with Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development and Monte Solberg, Minister of Citizenship and immigration to talk about the real or perceived shortages of skilled trades people across the country.

“We’d also like to meet soon with Minister Flaherty about credits for construction workers who need to travel to find work.”

But Barry Stevens, chair of the Central Ontario Building Trades political action committee, says he’s angry about the new cabinet line-up, particularly those members who once served in Ontario’s Mike Harris government.

“Ontario has already rejected these people. Stephen Harper has installed a bunch of neo-Cons who won’t talk to unionized labour,” Stevens says.

“There were a lot of smiles and handshakes prior to the election; today, construction workers should start counting their fingers. Trying to get write-offs for traveling construction workers and getting reforms to the Employment Insurance Act will now be impossible.”

Stevens is also unimpressed with the Transport and Infrastructure merger, favouring instead the creation of an urban affairs ministry to concentrate on city infrastructure like subways and other rapid transit projects.

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