A new Nanos Research survey on infrastructure spending and public acceptance of the P3 project model reveals major support for public infrastructure investments regardless of whether it adds to government debt.
The survey, commissioned by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships (CCPPP) and submitted by Nanos in October, indicates that Canadians believe infrastructure spending to promote economic growth is much more palatable than investments on environmental projects or to address climate change.
Canadians think large infrastructure projects are best managed by the private sector over the public sector but only by a relatively small margin, and there is massive support — almost nine in 10 surveyed — for the premise that infrastructure spending spurs economic growth. As for P3s (public-private partnerships), there was good news for the CCPPP — seven of 10 Canadians support or somewhat support P3s for new infrastructure in Canada.
Nanos president and CEO Nik Nanos suggested that the major takeaway from the survey was that Canadians do not seem to object to deficit financing of infrastructure. The federal Liberals ran on that package leading up to the election last October and their budget in March pledged $125 billion in infrastructure spending over 10 years — that total expanded to $180 billion over 12 years in Finance Minister Bill Morneau's recent economic statement.
The Nanos survey found 38 per cent of Canadians agree or somewhat agree (32 per cent) that the benefits of the large infrastructure spend outweigh the drawback of running deficits in the short term, while 14 per cent disagree and 11 per cent somewhat disagree with the statement. Six per cent are unsure.
"At a time when Canadians are very weary of debt and running deficits, it looks like there's one exception," said Nanos. "People see infrastructure as an investment and P3s delivering infrastructure is one of the key solutions that they embrace."
"Canadians know that we have to invest in infrastructure and they're more than likely to see the connection between tax dollars and infrastructure that's delivered to them."
The survey, conducted by Nanos in September, found that 46 per cent of Canadians believe the government should spend money on large projects that spur economic growth, while 25 per cent think the government should spend on projects that have environmental benefits and address climate change. Nanos, whose firm has been conducting surveys for the CCPPP for five years, said he thinks the answers might have been different if the economy were booming.
"The reality is, it's a mix, the economic focus versus the environmental focus versus the social focus," he said. "But you know, I think that mix would change depending on how the economy is performing. If the economy is very hot, people would still want to do infrastructure investment but they would probably be more disposed to focus on the environment and social issues, because they would say, OK, we've got some room."
The survey began with general infrastructure questions and then ventured into views on P3s. The P3 questions had a preamble explaining the basics of the concept. The study reports that seven in 10 Canadians support (32 per cent) or somewhat support (39 per cent) possible P3s to construct new buildings and infrastructure.
The report notes this represents an increase in support of five per cent since April 2016. Twenty-five per cent of Canadians oppose or somewhat oppose P3s for new infrastructure in Canada, while four per cent are unsure. Nanos said Canadians are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of how P3s work.
"I would say most Canadians are aware there are alternatives to traditional procurement," he said. Asked who they thought can best manage the risks of large and complex infrastructure projects, 42 per cent of Canadians say the private sector, the study said, while 37 per cent say the government. Twenty-one per cent are unsure.
"It is not all government fund-build-manage-deliver, there are mixes that can be seen as appropriate depending on the project and the financial situation of the municipalities that want to deliver infrastructure," said Nanos.
Asked to rank the top three areas the government should prioritize among infrastructure projects, Canadians' most frequent first- and second-ranked responses were health infrastructure (35 per cent and 19 per cent respectively), highways and roads (18 per cent and 16 per cent respectively) and public transit (12 per cent and 15 per cent respectively).
The results were no surprise to veteran pollster Nanos — he said over the past 15 years in every survey, health care and the economy have always been at the top of Canadians' policy concerns. Canadians' most frequent third ranked responses were water/wastewater facilities (16 per cent), green energy (14 per cent) and public transit (13 per cent).
Nanos said information like this tracked over time informs his clients about how the infrastructure culture is taking root among Canadians.
"One of the ways they are trying to benefit is to create an infrastructure investment culture in Canada, which many other developed countries like Germany and China have. They have a culture where they know that investment in infrastructure is good for competitiveness, it is good for the economy, and that it is something that you do all the time," said Nanos.