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Business Commentary Canada’s natural resources must not lull us into a false cocoon of comfort

Derek H. Burney, Senior strategic adviser at Norton Rose Fulbright, was Canada's ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He was directly involved in negotiating the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.

We should never forget that foreign policy is, to a great extent, an extension of domestic policy. We cannot derive the benefits of broader market access unless we get our own house in order. Despite our claim to be an "energy superpower," we are actually lagging in a sector where we should be leading.

A senior Asian diplomat candidly told me that he thought Canada was too well-off, too self-satisfied and not striving strongly enough to seize new opportunities, notably in his region.

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"You have every resource known to humanity," he said, "from water to agriculture, minerals and energy, and, unlike most other countries, you have no existential threat to your existence. And yet you prefer to coast."

We do seem at times to be like the man born on third base who thinks he hit a triple. We do tend to coast on the richness of our resource base and the economic oxygen of our southern neighbour.

We are seen as being "fat around the middle," ambivalent at best, incapable at worst of building the infrastructure and attracting the investments necessary for development and export.

If the oil-price slump wasn't bad enough for our energy sector, we hobble ourselves further with a combination of judicial and provincial ambiguity and irrational demands from special-interest advocates.

Meanwhile, our liquefied-natural-gas projects languish at the back of the global queue. The Energy East pipeline, which would both reduce our dependence on foreign imports and expand our markets for exports of oil (adding an estimated $35-billion to our gross domestic product), is hamstrung by opposition of various stripes.

We act as if we have the luxury to procrastinate, consult forever, send conflicting messages about our appetite for investments and infrastructure without risk – as if the world is waiting breathlessly for Canada's rich resources. That is a dangerously naive presumption. Investors do have choices. Customers do have other sources of supply.

No single company can surmount these obstacles by itself. Our governments and private sector need to do a better job at framing and leading a rational debate on projects that will serve the national interest.

Incidentally, we can implement sensible actions to preserve our environment while developing our resource base. We should not succumb to a false choice between one or the other.

We may have an abundance of food and energy resources, but if we cannot move them efficiently to markets, we will be left, literally, in a snowbank of our own making.

The real lesson from the sandbagging of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project is that we should move expeditiously to export energy beyond North America.

We need to decide whether we are capable of taking concrete action to build the infrastructure needed to secure our prosperity. The federal government should assert its constitutional power to act "on works or undertakings for the general advantage of Canada" on the grounds that a pipeline, or an LNG facility or a hydroelectricity dam is vital to the national economic well-being. Otherwise, we can continue to tinker at the margins, dwell on the fad of the moment and conserve political capital for more limited objectives.

This is not just a challenge for governments. Complacency can also be found in the private sector, where it is chronic if not cultural. We do have some superb global champions that have been hugely successful in markets such as China, where there are serious risks as well as obvious rewards. We should not be shy about celebrating and emulating their success.

The government can set the priorities and the policy framework through negotiations, but it's ultimately the private sector that can bolster the public debate and exploit the benefits of more open market access and more secure environments for investment.

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Sir John A. Macdonald acted on that kind of vision to forge a country that many thought was improbable 148 years ago. What better way to celebrate our 150th anniversary than with decisions that will stimulate our prosperity and our economic security for the balance of this century?

We live in an age of fast-changing threats and opportunities, but Canada does have real advantages, provided that we do not let the blessings of nature and past performance lull us into a false cocoon of comfort.

Geography may have given us the luxury to coast for many years, but geography and sentiment should never limit our ambition or our courage to exploit our strengths beyond North America.

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