Senate QP: Infrastructure questions

The first Senate ministerial Question Period of the fall was the return of Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, his third time before the Senate in such a manner. Senator Larry Smith led off, raising the government’s financial reports and the PBO report talking about delays to Infrastructure spending rollout, and wondered why things were so slow. Sohi noted the approval process and the lag time that was part of it, and that they will pay invoices as they are forwarded to the federal government. Smith noted the Senate national finance committee study on infrastructure spending, and Sohi noted that they had streamlined some of their processes and eliminated some of the the paper burden, but they were still working toward simpler bilateral processes with the provinces based on four funding streams.

Senator Mockler was up next, returning to the committee reports on the infrastructure spending, and wondered about the lack of a strategic plan across government departments. Mockler wondered when the government would release their long-term plan, and Sohi noted that they wanted local governments to set their own priorities after the federal government identified their priority areas such as public transit or social infrastructure.

Senator Downe asked about his usual bugaboo of tolls on the Confederation Bridge while the upcoming Champlain Bridge would be toll-free. Sohi deployed his usual talking points that the Champlain Bridge was replacing an existing structure and was not a new piece of infrastructure so tolling was an option but they were choosing not to implement it. (Not sure that Downe was convinced).

Senator Petitclerc asked about accessibility standards for existing federal infrastructure and ensuring that new projects being funded took into account accessibility requirements. Sohi responded that it was an important question, and after an anecdote about accessible busses, he noted the funding in the budget for supporting accessibility and retrofitting existing buildings while new builds would meet universal accessibility standards.

Senator Black asked for an update on the Infrastructure Bank, its CEO and board appointments, and the process for identifying potential partners and investments. Sohi noted that there was still a lot of work to be done, but they had selected a board chair and they were still in the process of appointing the board and hiring a CEO with an aim at being up and running by the end to the year. As for project selection, the government’s initial review would be about whether the projects were in the public interest, but the review and selection would be done by the Bank.

Senator Marshall worried about the risk assumed by Infrastructure Bank projects, and Sohi noted that the risk would be proportional to the investment, and it was why they were trying to depoliticize the process.

Senator Patterson asked about National Trade Corridors Fund as it relates to Nunavut, and how a particular project might get funded given the existing avenues. Sohi noted the funding levels for particular funds that could be applicable, as well as the fact that it might be of interest to the Infrastructure Bank, though the decision had to be made by the Territorial Government.

Senator Eggleton asked about the social infrastructure funds for social housing that would benefit women fleeing domestic violence, and Sohi relayed an anecdote about such a woman during his time as an Edmonton city counsellor, and noted that there will be an increased focus on that, especially with Minister Philpott now heading the portfolio of Indigenous Services.

Senator Gálvez asked about infrastructure taking the risk of climate change into consideration, and Sohi noted how he had seen the impacts of climate change in Nunavut, and noted the programmes that they were putting into place for mitigation.

Senator Bovey asked about autonomous vehicles, and wondered what role the Infrastructure Bank would play in the new infrastructure that would make more use of these technologies. Sohi remarked that the Smart Cities Challenge was very exciting, and that one of the aims of the Infrastructure Bank was the collection of better data that would help with future innovation.

Overall, it was a pretty standard day for Senate QP, which was a welcome change from the shenanigans of the Commons. Sohi, while he would occasionally veer off into anecdotes, kept his answers fairly focused — better than some of his colleagues — and we got a good number of exchanges in there, which isn’t always the case.

Sartorially speaking, snaps go out to Senator André Pratte for a tailored black suit with a white shirt and maroon tie, and to Senator Lucie Moncion for a well cut white jacket and top with black slacks. Style citations go out to Senator Larry Smith for a tan brown suit with a pink shirt and pink striped tie, and to Senator Diane Bellemare for a well-cut dress that was unfortunately comprised of a busy floral pattern.