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Own the Podium funding may die

No confidence vote on budget would push sport funding increases back a year

It’s not uncommon for important pieces of legislation to "die" on the table when an election is called – it took 12 years for Canada to pass any kind of endangered species legislation as successive bills never came up for vote.

This year, almost $70 million in additional funding for Sport Canada and $87 million for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games will die if the Conservative Party of Canada is successful in its bid to force a vote of no confidence over the 2005 budget. Sport Canada would see funding levels drop to about $70 million a year, a level that has been criticized as too low after Canada’s disappointing showing at the 2004 Summer Games.

One program that will be affected is $55 million in federal money for the $110 million Own the Podium program over the next five years. Own The Podium will provide money for winter sports and sport technology research to help Canada in its goal of winning 35 medals at home in 2010. The other half of the money will be provided by the B.C. government and the Vancouver Organizing Committee through sponsorships.

With less than five years to go before the 2010 Games, $21 million a year in total funding for Own The Podium was expected to start immediately. Some winter sport organizations would have seen their budgets more than double with the new funding, while every organization would have seen some kind of increase in line with their prospects for winnings medals in 2006 and 2010. But with the federal budget in doubt, so is the federal government’s share of the new funding.

Another concern for winter sports organizations is additional funding for the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy this February, which were part of the overall budget package.

As well, federal funding for all sports programs was expected to be in the neighbourhood of $110 million a year.

"If we pass the budget, (funding is) secured," said Steve Owen, the federal Minister of State responsible for sport, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "If we don’t, we start all over again at $70 million (a year)."

Under Own The Podium, the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association would see funding increase by $540,000 a year to 2010, plus $150,000 to upgrade the water ramps at Whistler. Although another election would delay that funding, the CFSA is confident that they will see the money eventually.

"My understanding is that it’s not a question of if it will be funded, it’s a question of when," said Peter Judge, CEO of the CFSA. "This (funding) initiative is bipartisan, is supported by all the political parties… I think if an election was called it probably would delay the distribution of money, but I have a level of confidence that (an election) would not squash it. I think politicians and corporate sponsors recognize that sports will need funding to be able to compete with the world, and to be successful at home."

Funding from the B.C. government and VANOC will help bridge any lost funding through to 2006, but Judge believes it would be better to pass funding legislation sooner than later.

"What (the election) does, it puts financial pressure on us. We always run close to the wire this time of year, and it takes a while from the time funding is being announced to the time we get a cheque. Obviously it would be better for us to have this funding sooner than later, or some kind of contribution to Fast Track to 2006, which is the Own The Podium program in the lead up to Torino," said Judge.

Tom McIllfaterick, the CEO of the Canadian Snowboard Federation, believes this budget is crucial – any delay would hurt the Canadian team’s prospects in 2006.

"Canadians don’t want this election," he said. "There is more than sport funding on the line here, and Canadians want the government to approve this budget and get it done. I think it would be in everyone’s best interest if (political parties) did what Canadians want first, then play politics later."

According to McIllfaterick the CSF is already more than a month into this season when it comes to funding and planning, and the federation needs to know immediately what kind of funding to expect in order to plan for the season and the Olympics. Even if all parties do support Own The Podium and sport funding, McIllfaterick says it will take months to hold an election, and that Parliament likely won’t reconvene until September at the earliest. After that it could takes weeks, or even months to pass a new budget.

"This is an Olympic year. We need to know if we have the resources to hire additional coaches, or additional support staff like physiotherapists, video techies, equipment techies, whatever. It would be nice to know if we could fund more of our athletes’ expenses as well, or to know if we can have a special training camp before the Games to get them ready. We can’t plan that now because we don’t have the money," he said.

Under Own The Podium, the CSF would see their budget more than double, with $771,000 on top of the $695,000 the organization currently receives.

The Conservatives, under Stephen Harper, currently hold 99 out of 307 seats in Parliament, while the ruling Liberal Party under Prime Minister Paul Martin hold 131 seats. The Bloc Quebecois, who the Conservatives hope to enlist in a vote against the budget, have 54 seats. The NDP, which has struck a deal to support the Liberals, have 19 seats, and there are four independent members. To pass the budget and avoid a vote of no confidence, the Liberals need a majority in the House of 154 votes.

The conservatives have already initiated a motion for a no-confidence vote. Parliament could vote on the motion as early as May 30.