Tony Fell is a former senior financial-services executive and corporate director.
We are now more than two years into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's majority mandate and while there are some positives, I am disappointed on several fronts.
The Prime Minister has spoken well at many international conferences about diversity, Indigenous peoples, inclusiveness, wealth disparity and peacekeeping, and he has improved Canada's image on the world stage. Nevertheless, while we all like sunny days and photo ops, to paraphrase a quote often falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, "however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look back at what you have done." With our present government, so far it's pretty much a blank page.
We continue to have trouble getting anything big done in Canada. We have trouble building LNG plants, pipelines or enough subways; we suffer from major regulatory creep and our big cities are hamstrung with little money for infrastructure and, as a consequence, our economy performs far below potential. Whatever growth we have is based on credit-driven consumer spending facilitated by ultralow interest rates – not by industrial and infrastructure development. We do reasonably well by Group of Seven standards, but that's not the measure. Why set the bar so low? What is our potential? We seem content with 2-per-cent growth and 6-per-cent unemployment. Our economy can't even perform with an 80-cent dollar. We lack a performance-driven competitive culture and an urgency to accomplish big things.
This is a government that just accepts we must sell our oil at a huge discount to the world market. Have they calculated how much we have lost? Are they concerned our stock market has been the worst performer on the planet for a decade? Does anyone care? The markets are telling us Canada does not seem to be a good place to invest right now.
Our federal and provincial infrastructure programs, which I have previously written about and supported, are far too timid and fall well short of expectations. With 350,000-plus people a year coming to Canada, the infrastructure deficit continues to grow at an alarming rate. In Toronto, for example, where is the downtown subway relief line? The answer is nowhere. Work on this should start immediately. Business aircraft are gradually being crowded out of Pearson International Airport. We are going to have an airport capacity problem in the GTA. Where is the sixth runway at Pearson? Again, the answer is nowhere. There are many similar projects across Canada including major highways, bridges and city streets. To get the job done, we have to involve the private sector on a direct basis similar to what the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is doing with government on light-rail transport in Montreal: a good model.
I am not keen on the Canada Infrastructure Bank because I think it introduces a degree of politicization and an extra layer of bureaucracy that we just don't need. Our pension funds have huge financial resources and vast experience in developing tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure around the world; they don't need guidance from the federal government. What they do need is for governments to create the opportunity for them to build infrastructure by privatizing some major assets. Governments don't create wealth, but they can – and should – provide the incentives for the private sector to get the job done.
The federal government could have given far more support to LNG development on our West Coast but now we have ceded that market to the United States, Australia and Qatar. The government quickly shut down Northern Gateway by banning tankers and gave only half-hearted support to Energy East before bowing to the mayor of Montreal. It would have been a great national project. The support of the Prime Minister and his government of Kinder Morgan has been pathetic – almost apologetic. The new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada is just a political move to give the impression that something is happening in Ottawa to speed things up – which it won't.
The federal government is running a sizeable deficit with no plan for a balanced budget. They should immediately announce a full analysis into privatizing Pearson Airport as a test and also implement a strong incentive program for provinces and municipalities to privatize assets such as the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto Hydro and Waterworks. Pearson alone is probably worth up to $10-billion. Let's find out. There will be lots of opposition to privatization but Air Canada and Petro-Canada were privatized under Brian Mulroney and CNR under Jean Chrétien – all great moves and highly successful public policy. Is there anyone on the planet who still thinks these companies should be owned and run by the federal government? Many telephone companies have been privatized over the years with extremely positive results. Highway 407 has been an incredible success and a great model for others to follow.
I am disappointed with the federal government on other issues. Supply management of our dairy industry is plain bad public policy. The government should have phased it out with transitional compensation for farmers. We should have joined the United States in the North American Missile Defence Shield. It's a no-brainer. We live in an increasingly dangerous world and the government should have set a three-year target to meet NATO's defence spending goal of 2 per cent of GDP. It's an embarrassment not to pay our share. The constant bickering on trade between provinces is totally counterproductive. The federal government should petition the Supreme Court for a formal ruling confirming our federal government's authority on inter-provincial trade. All this could have been done, or started, over the past two years.
This is a government that is frightened of its own shadow. It lacks the will to drive controversial good public policy for fear of losing votes in the next election. That's no way for a majority government to run our country.
Prime Minister Trudeau still has time to turn all this around, but we need much bolder leadership with a bigger vision for the country. Canada is divided unto itself with myopic regional thinking and no one in charge. Co-operative federalism no longer works. Mr. Trudeau should immediately call a premiers' conference in Ottawa and start using the substantial levers of federal power.
Canada has all the ingredients to be a huge success story performing far above current levels but it won't happen unless governments raise the bar several notches. Nobody rises to low expectations. The essence of political leadership is the ability to convince people to follow you where they don't want to go. Governments will be remembered for what they accomplished – not for how long they were in office. It's all about leadership. Oh, for a Canadian Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady with an iron will and a rare politician totally focused on doing the right thing rather than the political thing – then we could really fly.