The Jeux de la Francophonie has done something that politicians in New Brunswick cannot seem to do: foster unity across the language divide. Everyone is up in arms at the purported ballooning of costs of these Games, scheduled to be held in Moncton and Dieppe in 2021.
However, the economic arguments against provincial funding are short-sighted and fail to take into account key factors, not the least of which is the international reputation of a small Canadian province. Most politicians and citizens are making one-sided arguments in the media: those that line up with their partisan or ideological leanings.
Certainly, there is enough blame to go around on this matter. The lack of transparency from organizers and the past government is troubling. However, the public messaging on the other side of the legislature has also been creative and fact-bending.
For instance, the budget did not increase seven-fold out of pure fabrication. The initial price tag of $17 million was a bare-bones estimation. It was understood by authorities, but not fully communicated to the public, that the real cost of the event needed to be fleshed out. Important public investments such as these should be communicated to the public and justified well ahead of time.
Anyone who believes $17 million was an accurate and final figure might not fully grasp the complex nature of organizing international events. The true cost probably falls somewhere between initial low-ball bid made in 2015 and the $130 million budget recently released by organizers. Sherbrooke, Quebec’s losing bid of $50 million may even be too low considering some infrastructure costs had been offset by the prior hosting of the Canada Games in 2013.
The ultimate decision to host the Francophonie games now falls in the lap of a minority government with growing debt, fiscal constraints and demographic shortfalls. So the key question becomes this: Do the economic arguments made for or against the Francophonie Games stand on solid ground? Or conversely, on what factors should the government rely on to support or cancel them?
Economists are skeptical about the economic benefits of international events or attracting professional sporting teams. How much did public authorities invest in the construction of the Moncton’s Avenir Centre again?
In turn, they tend to analyze the Francophonie Games issue through a “return on investment” lens and try to predict the multiplying effect. In other words, for every dollar that you spend, how much will you generate in revenue in a certain number of years? But is this even the right approach?
Economists such as Pierre-Marcel Desjardins and Richard Saillant have made this very « return on investment » argument. They say the Francophonie Games cannot be justified with economic models or from a purely economic-development perspective.
However, there are intangible benefits or pitfalls of anything a government chooses to spend money on, which cannot be quantified easily and are usually not taken into account by economists. In short, not all benefits are economic in nature.
Fundamentally, we need to ask what New Brunswick’s international reputation is worth. What would be the socio-political fallout of cancelling the Games? How can this province purport to welcome immigrants if it breaks promises or does not have a global outlook on sports, culture and language?
Are economists and citizens properly factoring in the non-economic benefits? For example, have they quantified the return on infrastructure investments for the next 10 years? After athletes and cultural participants have left, New Brunswickers will still be able to use the facilities that will be constructed or renovated. And even if Canadian tourists wanting to come to Moncton will be hard pressed to find a hotel during the event, why can they not visit Fundy Park or stay a week in Saint John instead? Everybody wins.
Why is the population so eager to brush aside the Francophonie? What if these were Commonwealth games?
Other expenditures do not seem to faze the population. In 1984, Pope John Paul II made a memorable stop in Moncton to address the faithful who came to see him in droves. In 2002, our Queen visited this beautiful province for a brief but eventful 25 hours to celebrate her Jubilee.
I suppose one could ask how much of the public purse was spent to greet these dignitaries. But should we really be evaluating the « return on investment » of these events, or simply recognize that certain things are worth doing for non-economic reasons?
Most citizens recognize that certain symbolic events indeed incur costs that one may not fully recoup in pecuniary terms. However, in most cases, it is the right thing to do: especially when your international reputation is at stake.
Commentary: Monday December 17, 2018
Telegraph Journal, provincial Edition, p. A-9
Moncton Times-Transcript, p. A-9
Fredericton Daily Gleaner, p. A-11
Le Droit, 10 janvier 2019