Prime Minister Stephen Harper, flanked by Heritage Minister Josee Verner, left, and airport director Gaetan Gagne walk on the tarmac before announcing a government investment for the Quebec City airport Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Quebec City. Harper faced questions over the building of an arena for a professional hockey team. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
QUEBEC - After stickhandling carefully around the issue for months, Prime Minister Stephen Harper skated into Quebec City and blasted the idea of federal funding for a new hockey arena.
It marked an emphatic new stance for a government that, until just a few days ago, was said to be considering the idea.
That definitive tone signalled Harper's intention to put the sensitive debate behind him before the next federal election.
Quebec City is strategically important to his Conservatives and the lack of federal action had already angered the popular local mayor.
Mayor Regis Labeaume has accused the Tories of undermining the project by dragging out a decision for months as local MPs raised hopes by wearing vintage Quebec Nordiques jerseys to a photo op.
Harper moved to end to any lingering speculation Wednesday, calling arena funding the wrong thing to do.
He said most Canadians agree with him.
"We looked at all the precedents,'' Harper told a news conference at the airport. ''The federal government simply does not and has not historically been a significant funder of sports stadiums.
"There is not a desire to change that across the country. In fact, there is a lot of opposition to it.
"So, look, I understand people are disappointed with the decision. But I think we have a pretty good record here to run on. This city has never had the kind of influence and the kind of attention it's had from the federal government since it's had this Conservative team."
That message was designed to blunt what will surely be a key Bloc Quebecois theme during the campaign: that Harper's Quebec City MPs are powerless, having failed to deliver on the high-profile issue.
But the prime minister argued his case Wednesday, saying residents should still vote for his party despite the arena decision.
The prime minister said his government would continue funding other types of infrastructure in Quebec City, including a newly announced $50-million expansion of the local airport.
There were no representatives from the municipal or provincial government at Wednesday's airport announcement.
Harper said that in a period of increasing budgetary restraint, there is little desire across the land for taxpayers' money going to pro sports facilities.
He said the Conservative caucus has discussed the issue extensively and agrees with the final decision, as do most Canadians.
And he expressed hope that Quebec City, with its centre-right political leanings, will come to agree with him, too.
Harper noted that Quebecers are the most-taxed people in North America and he said they want their federal dollars spent wisely.
"We will not spend taxpayers' money on a professional sports arena or stadium in Quebec City,'' he said. ''And we will not participate in such projects in Regina, Halifax, Edmonton, or my hometown, Calgary.
"You either fund them all—or you don't fund any. We aren't financing the one here, and the same treatment will be applied equally across the country. . .
"There will be no double standard."
The prime minister's more strident tone comes just days after his government let it be known through Twitter that—despite months of anticipation—it would not get involved in the arena project.
It also comes after Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff mused over the weekend that his party might still fund the arena.
With his rhetorical shift Wednesday, the prime minister appeared to be trying to unburden himself of the arena debate and force Ignatieff to deal with it.
The Liberal leader was asked about it Wednesday in Markham, Ont. He bristled at the characterization he might fund NHL hockey.
"It's not an arena project," Ignatieff replied.
"We've said for 15 months we're not going subsidize the NHL and private sports arenas. The thing about the coliseum in Quebec is it's a community centre. It has a cultural function, it's got a function to hold conventions.
"The community centre function seems to me to be exactly the kind of thing a federal government should support."
In a sign of how quickly the tables had turned, late Wednesday, the Tories were suddenly attacking Ignatieff for supporting the project.
It was a drastic turnaround after months in which the Tories were considered the leading potential benefactors of the project.
"This is a reckless waste of taxpayers’money at a time of fiscal restraint," the Tories said Wednesday on a party website.
"Who is he trying to fool? No matter how Ignatieff spins it, the Coliseum is an arena project to serve a professional sports team."