Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993 and served as a director of TransCanada Corp. from 2005 to April 2018.
Elections are assessments of how well a government has done, with the key performance measures being the economy, national unity and security – and as we now enter a federal election year, there are obvious stresses and strains on each. Canada has not been consumed by the populist nationalism evident elsewhere and we pride ourselves on having high levels of tolerance and a generosity of spirit, but these can engender a false sense of comfort when hard choices are needed. After all, this is a world where the global order has been fundamentally challenged, by an erosion of commitments affecting economic and security institutions, and of the confidence that the leadership typically expected of the United States will actually be delivered. And in today’s more volatile world, bad actors – large and small – exploit perceived weakness. Just ask Ukraine.
So for Canada, bold, visionary leadership is the most crucial commodity in demand. And despite the odds against us, there are still practical ways forward.
Getting our economic house in order is essential to future prosperity. Regardless of the erratic and self-absorbed nature of the current U.S. President, the politics and economics of proximity will always influence our ability to serve our own interest. That is why the top priority should be to revitalize our competitive edge with the United States. This has been a cardinal rule for Canadian governments but, by consistently rowing in the opposite direction on tax, regulatory and energy policies, we have diminished our edge for investors and producers alike and stunted our growth potential. More studies are not the answer. Instead, we need concrete decisions that will redress the growing imbalance.
These actions would also equip us to take better advantage of new trade agreements with the European Union and our Asia-Pacific partners, each of which offers more promising prospects than broad-gauged negotiations with China that would inevitably involve more than trade. However, we should carefully track what Washington achieves in its rancorous negotiations with Beijing, invoking to our benefit the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s article 32.10 around deals with “non-market” countries.
Noble attempts to balance energy development with climate-change measures have also not worked. A history of vacillation, procrastination and erratic political and judicial intervention has hobbled our ability to develop our energy resource. Our commitments to fulfill the Paris Accord are not delivering real change, and the policy paralysis is igniting regional tensions that haven’t been seen in decades – all while the withdrawal of the U.S. and the flagrant non-performance by major polluters like China and India make a mockery of the aspirations, too.
The question is not whether the climate is changing, but rather what is the most effective and politically palatable method to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. As Bret Stephens observed in The New York Times: “To have a diagnosis is not to have a cure, and bad cures can be worse than the disease. Those who think otherwise are in denial.” Indisputably, without re-engagement, if not leadership, from the U.S., and without real commitments from other major polluters, no cure will work.
Now is the time for less zealotry and more hard-nosed diplomacy; less posture and more purpose. Our primary goal should be to bring the U.S. back into the global dialogue on climate change, to address legitimate concerns about the Paris Accord’s current deficiencies – for example, the non-compliance of every G20 country – and to demand more precise commitments from major polluters. We should jointly undertake emission reductions on our shared continent without giving a competitive advantage to either partner.
On energy, the government should assert its constitutional prerogative over interprovincial pipelines and adopt legislation that will give less scope for procrastination by the courts, the provinces and Indigenous communities. Pipelines to tidewater are needed to facilitate exports and sustain the economic growth needed to finance the social programs to which Canadians are accustomed. A national task force should oversee a streamlined process that would encourage private-sector investment and avoid the need for further taxpayer funding.
National security starts with preservation of border integrity. We need to check the uncontrolled influx of refugee claimants crisply and judiciously, not with more money, but by closing glaring loopholes in the law and expediting decisions at the border. And given the increased activity by China and Russia, we should initiate with the U.S. a mutual, strategic plan to protect our contiguous borders and shared interests in the Arctic.
Governments are elected to lead, not follow public opinion. Instead of adopting campaign platforms that attempt to give things to distinct groups of Canadians, our party leaders should offer authentic prescriptions that will improve the future prospects for all Canadians – especially in this much tougher global environment.