You think it’s easy to make priorities?

Paul Wells on the Ablonczy/Pride fiasco and the bizarre tale of Marquee Tourism Events

While Colleague ITQ tries to make head or tail of the Ablonczy/Pride fiasco, here’s a little background on the miserably ill-conceived, comically shoddily administered Marquee Tourism Events program from which the money to Toronto Pride flowed.

In Ottawa — the community, not the capital, to the extent the two are separable — we became aware of MTE — you can pronounce it “empty,” as in, “Is this program full of good sense, or empty?” — a few weeks ago, when at about 10 a.m. on a Wednesday word got out in music-fan circles that the New Orleans jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard was going to play a free outdoor concert in Confederation Park. That night. Like, 10 hours later.

It was only after Blanchard’s show that the full story came out: the Ottawa Jazz Festival organizers had applied under MTE for extra funding to promote tourism to Ottawa. In early May. And festival CEO Katharine O’Grady got her money — $338,000, not far shy of what Toronto Pride got — 48 hours before the day she had designated for the concert. This led to a mad scramble to find an artist who could play the show. In the end, as one furious Citizen columnist pointed out, this particular Marquee Tourism Event ended up producing an Event That Cannot Possibly Have Attracted Any Tourists, because one simply doesn’t wake up in, say, Cleveland and say, “You mean Terence Blanchard is in Ottawa tonight? By God, if I hurry I just might make it.”

The point of the Marquee Tourism Event, as with the veritable bazaar being run out of Canadian Heritage these days, is to buy back some of the peace and quiet the Harper government lost last year with all that unfortunate business about cuts to assorted arts programs on the eve of the federal election. That led to unpleasant electoral consequences. So this year, James Moore and assorted substitutes have been shovelling money off the back of a truck in a bid to win back the affection of people who want taxpayer money to support arts and culture. But the really big money is over at MTE, in Industry. I had an executive at one of the program’s biggest recipients tell me he was not entirely sure how to spend all the cash that had been dumped on him, because — at the risk of repeating a theme — he hadn’t been given enough time to make many intelligent decisions.

So spare a moment’s sympathy for Diane Ablonczy, who knew (a) the government was totally, 100% in the business of spending pots of money on assorted tourist events this year; (b) the Prime Minister’s notorious disdain for such things was on hold, for the moment, as long as there were hearts and votes to be won back; (c) Toronto Pride is a big deal that gets a lot of media attention.

But it turns out that not all Marquee Tourism Events are created equal. Diane Ablonczy has learned that lesson. So have we all.

One last thing, though. There are more Marquee Tourism Events still to come, all funded from the same pot that got Brad Trost so upset when some of the money in it went to, you know, the gays. Some of those Marquee Events are this very week: here’s John Baird announcing $1.5 million from the program to pay for free Ottawa Bluesfest concerts in the Byward Market.

All of which leaves me wondering: If I were Broken Social Scene, would I still feel all right about playing this gig?

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