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Liberals defy logic by sticking to their lowball Olympic figures

Vaughn Palmer In Victoria Finance Minister Colin Hansen sounded hurt at the suggestion that his updated estimate of $925 million for Olympic costs represented a 50-per-cent overrun on the budget the B.C. Liberals touted before the Games.

Vaughn Palmer

In Victoria

Finance Minister Colin Hansen sounded hurt at the suggestion that his updated estimate of $925 million for Olympic costs represented a 50-per-cent overrun on the budget the B.C. Liberals touted before the Games.

"When I hear people say that we have always promised that the Games would be funded from a $600-million envelope, that is not actually what we said," Hansen told reporters in Vancouver. "What we said (about) that initial $600-million envelope was that it was to cover a specific list of items."

Not to be confused with a back-of-the-envelope budget calculation, presumably.

Still, this business with the envelope was the key, according to Hansen.

Some things were in the government-defined budget envelope for the Games. Venue construction. Live sites. Medical coverage. Contingencies.

Security too, which is why Hansen conceded to a $165-million overrun on that score. But the rest of the costs laid out in the 20-page report were not regarded as part of staging the Games, and thus were "outside the envelope."

The $48-million Olympic Secretariat, for instance. Who would think that was an Olympic cost? Not the B.C. Liberals. Outside the envelope.

Or the five giant rings in Coal Harbour, placed there at a cost of -- I'm not making this up -- half a million dollars per ring. Hansen left them outside the envelope as well. Ditto for such exercises as the Games-Time Celebrations ($14 million), the Look of the Games ($1 million), the Torch Relay Community Grant Program ($4 million), the Torch Relay Expansion ($4 million), Games Town and Games Kids and the Road to 2010 ($2 million), the B.C./Canada pavilions at the you-knowwhats in Turin and Beijing ($17 million), the never-an-Olympic pavilion at the Vancouver Art Gallery ($6 million), the B.C. International Media Centre for an event to be named later ($3 million), the One-Year Countdown Celebration ($1 million) and the Robson Square Celebration Site ($15 million.)

All those, Hansen stuffed into a separate $160-million envelope as costs of "marketing, hosting, celebration and community engagement activities."

Marketing what? Hosting what? Celebrating what? Not the Olympics apparently.

Reporters chased Hansen around the block several times at the press conference (I was listening from Victoria over a telephone link), but never got him to admit to the dodgy aspect of his bookkeeping.

He finished, as he started, saying he'd be very disappointed if news reports represented the $925-million aggregate figure as an overrun on the original $600 million all-in cost because "that is not what we said."

Oh, really.

Premier Gordon Campbell in a speech about the Olympics on Sept. 26, 2002: "What will it actually cost us? We're talking about an incremental investment over the next seven years of $600 million."

Campbell in the legislature, May 9, 2006: "Mr. Speaker, I don't know how you say this more clearly so that the members of the Opposition understand this. Hosting the Olympic Games is $600 million. There is a $600-million budget ... Let there be no question. This side of the House is going to provide $600 million to stage the Olympics. We are very clear about our commitment to hosting the Olympic Games. It's $600 million."

Hansen from the same debate: "I have never once said that the cost of staging the Olympic Games is going to exceed $600 million to the taxpayers of British Columbia, because if I said it, it wouldn't be true ... I have every reason to expect that the Games will be delivered without any increased obligation to the taxpayers over and above that $600 million."

Campbell, May 25, 2006: "The Olympic cost is $600 million. That's the cost. I believe we are going to deliver the Olympic Games for $600 million."

Campbell, Sept. 13, 2006: "Let's be clear. The cost of the Olympics is 600 million bucks. That's what the fact of the matter is."

Only the most gullible government supporters believed those statements. People recognized at the time that Campbell and Hansen were fudging the budget. Observers will likely dismiss the latest update as a less-than-complete cost accounting as well.

I put the all-in cost for all levels of government for Games and Games-related projects at between $7 billion and $8 billion. But that's a judgment call and readers will no doubt feel free to disagree.

The "why" of the Liberals' continued determination to lowball the budget is hard to figure. Back when the Olympics were still an uncertain prospect, it may have made sense to play down the costs to deflect arguments that the money could be better spent on other priorities.

Today, when the Games are widely regarded as a success (and I say that having opposed them), the day for quibbling over the cost of staging them is long past.

So I was thinking as I listened to the Hansen press conference: If this is how the Liberals handle a triumph, no wonder they are having so much trouble managing a genuine fiasco like the harmonized sales tax.

vpalmer@vancouversun.com