Senator Percy Downe, an unlikely populist

Published on January 2, 2016

Sen. Romeo Dallaire, here with Sen. Percy Downe outside Veterans Affairs Canada, says he supports the department's employees and doesn't think their jobs should leave P.E.I.

©Guardian photo

Sen. Percy Downe is usually very conscious of the tax payers’ dollar. He is not one who would charge the public for eating breakfast in his own home. And, if he had one, he’d know the difference between his cottage and his primary residence.

As a senator, he has pushed the Canadian Revenue Agency to go after Canadians who use off-shore banks to avoid paying taxes. Before becoming a senator, Percy Downe was chief of staff to Prime Minister Jean Chretien. A government that made serious cuts to federal spending and produced a series of balanced budgets.

For all of these reasons, plus the fact that Sen. Downe is one of those politicians who does not have to curry the public’s favour to remain in office, it is surprising to see him preying on some Islanders’ sense of entitlement by adopting the populist political posture of offering them a freebie. The good senator is the leading advocate of abandoning the user pay concept that built the Confederation Bridge.

Before going to the corridors of power in Ottawa, Senator Downe was in the employ of Premier Joe Ghiz when the contract for the construction of the ‘fixed link’ was signed. He would be aware that no one contemplated operating the bridge without cost to the users. In fact, most Islanders were happy that fare hikes were tied to the inflation rate and not left to the whim of the commercial operators.

The contract was signed and Islanders shouldn’t be too quick to advocate it be broken. Few Islanders would agree if the feds, or the private interests, wanted to increase the tolls beyond the agreed limit. By demanding the contract be broken the Island runs the risk of sounding like Newfoundlanders who are forever moaning about the contract signed with Hydro Quebec for the transmission of electricity from Churchill Falls.

Then, there’s the Wood Island ferry. If, the feds pay the tolls on the bridge, would they continue the subsidy to the ferry? And if the bridge was ‘free’ shouldn't the ferry also be ‘free’?

Sen. Downe claims pressure from the Quebec premier forced the lifting of tolls on the Champlain Bridge when actually crass partisan politics by Trudeau-the-Younger is the real reason. ‘Sunny Ways’ promised, if elected, he’d build the new Champlain Bridge without imposing tolls, totally abandoning the concept of ‘user pay’.

The present Champlain Bridge was built at a cost of just over $50 million, or a half a billion in today’s dollars. The good citizens of Montreal paid tolls to cross that bridge from 1962 until 1990, so they are aware of ‘user pay’.

The new Champlain bridge is expected to cost some $5 billion. It won’t be a project subsidized by the federal government as the Confederation Bridge was. The Champlain Bridge will be an outright gift by Trudeau-the-Younger to his home town. ‘$unny Ways’ indeed.

As a senator from P.E.I. Sen. Downe is mandated to make the government aware of the interests of the province. But, are the interests of the Island best served by breaking a legal contract. He should ask himself, would any federal politician spend $1 billion for the four Island seats? Instead of advocating ‘what’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander’, perhaps he could advocate that neither get any sauce. Perhaps, Sen. Downe could revert to his normal self and express concern for the tax dollars being spent. As a federal office holder, perhaps, he could be less parochial and show some concern for all taxpayers.

Instead of writing letters to the Island’s political leaders, urging them to get on his ‘toll-free’ bandwagon, he should lobby the federal government to honour the ‘user pay’ concept that has worked so well. He should urge his fellow senators to utilize their newly found freedom from political constraint and halt to this unnecessary waste of federal funds. Let Montrealers pay some of the cost of their transportation infrastructure just as Islanders, Newfoundlanders, the people of the Magdalens, and other Canadians do.

- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: acholman@pei.eastlink.ca