Former prime minister Brian Mulroney is calling on Ottawa to show greater leadership in getting Canada's natural resources to world markets, warning this country needs a federal persuader-in-chief to secure support for major projects or risk being outmanoeuvred by foreign rivals.
He said uncertainty over major resource projects is hurting Canada. "Put simply, we cannot market our resources globally if we don't have the infrastructure, political and industrial, to deliver them to market," he said.
Mr. Mulroney did not criticize Prime Minister Stephen Harper directly in a speech Tuesday evening to an Ottawa audience that included federal ministers such as John Baird, who introduced the former prime minister, and Peter MacKay, whose father served in Mr. Mulroney's cabinet. But he argued forcefully that federal leadership should take a more hands-on role in urging major players to support the construction of necessary infrastructure, from pipelines to liquefied natural gas facilities.
He called on Ottawa to create a resource development office, similar to the Trade Negotiations Office he used to build support for both the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement and then the North American free trade deal.
Central to his message was that the federal government needs to take a different approach to convincing affected Canadians of the need for major resource projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline and selling the U.S. government on the case for approving the Keystone XL pipeline project that would ship Alberta oil-sands crude to Texas. He quipped, in a comment directed to the U.S.'s new ambassador to Ottawa, who presented his credentials to the Governor-General earlier Tuesday, that "we fully expect, Mr. Ambassador, for that pipeline to be approved." With that, the audience erupted into applause and shouts of "Hear! Hear!"
"Leadership does not consist of imposing unpopular ideas on the public but of making unpopular ideas acceptable to the nation," Mr. Mulroney said later. "This requires a very solid argument for change and a very strong ability to make that argument over and over again."
Mr. Mulroney singled out the support of aboriginal groups as crucial, warning the federal government that there would be "no powerful explosion of development in our energy sector" without winning over native Canadians, affected provinces and environmental advocates. In this, he echoed comments by former Harper industry minister Jim Prentice.
"Without their active involvement and enthusiastic co-operation, our natural resources will remain in the ground – dead as a doornail," the former Progressive Conservative prime minister told the Canada 2020 dinner, where he also proclaimed, "Le Canada a gagné" (Canada won) in Monday's election that felled the sovereigntist Parti Québécois. He even suggested a couple of potential heads for his proposed resource development office, which he said should be granted "special power to counter interdepartmental turf squabbles, set clear priorities and streamline regulatory reviews," among other things.
"To lead this enterprise, we would need someone with the tenacity of Simon Reisman and the sensitivity of a Bob Rae or a Jim Prentice," Mr. Mulroney said.
Relations between Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Harper have been strained, in particular since 2009, when senior Conservative officials tried to distance the Tories from the former prime minister while his business dealings with businessman Karlheinz Schreiber were the subject of a public inquiry.
Mr. Mulroney described Northern Ontario's Ring of Fire mining region as a classic example of Canada's potential – and its problem. It has enormous mineral riches, from gold to copper – as much as $25-billion in economic activity – but has been hamstrung by uncertainty over aboriginal rights, infrastructure limitations and environmental approvals.
"There are days frankly when we seem to be like the fellow who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple," Mr. Mulroney said. "We take too much of what we have for granted, believing mistakenly that our vast resources will generate prosperity just by being there."