Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a penchant for clever quips. He seems to especially relish combining them with digs at Stephen Harper, like his speech in Davos earlier this month, where he said, "My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness."
Besides being a gratuitous shot that hardly dignifies his position, it's an ill-considered message to political and business leaders of countries that pay hundreds of billions of dollars for those resources.
Digging the hole deeper, Mr. Trudeau went on to say, "But Canadians also know … that growth and prosperity is not just a matter of what lies under our feet, but what lies between our ears."
It's hard to think of a worse insult levelled at the scientists and engineers whose decades of technological ingenuity have unlocked challenging resources such as the oil sands; or to the highly skilled workers who build and operate the complex extraction, processing and transportation facilities that deliver those resources to global markets. Even more reprehensible is that his words tell the tens of thousands of resource-industry workers who've been thrown out of work that the government has written them off as yesterday's economy.
Mr. Trudeau's hubris was too much for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was in the audience. "We are still a resource-based economy … and I do not see a path where that does not continue to be the case."
It would be enlightening for the Prime Minister to review Natural Resources Canada's 2014 report on the economic importance of Canada's energy, mining and forest industries: 1.8 million jobs, 20 per cent of nominal GDP, capital expenditures of $265-billion, planned and under way projects of $700-billion and export revenue of $259-billion, more than half of the country's total.
But alas, that was 2014, before a drop in Chinese demand ravaged the price of copper, aluminum, nickel, platinum, iron ore and coal by more than 50 per cent. And it was before the demise of OPEC production limits, combined with the lack of pipeline capacity, drove oil prices down by more than two-thirds. As a consequence, Canada's export revenue has fallen precipitously, driving up the current account deficit and driving down the loonie.
Given these facts, it's astonishing that the new Liberal regime seems all but oblivious to the reality that when a country's industrial cornerstone sector is in serious trouble, so is the country. In accordance with his new transparency policy, the Prime Minster made public his "mandate letters" to cabinet ministers.
It's a laudable initiative, but the only item that relates to the resource sector is a "new environmental assessment process," which is almost certain to mean more delays for projects that have already spent years and billions of dollars trying to gain regulatory approval. And for the biggest wealth generator in the most trouble, there's no mention of the need for pipelines to relieve the market access discount that sees Canadian oil receiving just half of international prices.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister isn't the only one blissfully unaware of the vast implications of collapsed oil prices. Last week, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre demanded that Energy East, the only proposed oil-export project still standing, be blocked from passing through Quebec, citing "environmental threats and too few economic benefits." This for a pipeline that would replace oil being brought into Montreal refineries by tankers from the Middle East.
Here's a dose of reality for Mr. Coderre's "economic benefits" calculation. In the 2014-15 fiscal year, the six so-called "have-not" provinces received $16.7-billion in federal equalization payments, of which Quebec received the lion's share at $9.5-billion. Equalization has been funded primarily by tax revenue from Alberta and Saskatchewan, but that revenue is plummeting due to the international oil-price collapse, made much worse by a lack of export pipeline access.
The equalization formula's three-year rolling average will delay the full impact on Quebec and the other five have-nots. A temporary reprieve for them, but a calamity for Ottawa, which will be on the hook for another $17-billion in 2016-17 equalization grants without the tax revenue to fund them.
Adding that gaping fiscal hole to the $4-billion calculation bust in the plan to tax the rich and lower taxes for the middle class, increasing employment insurance costs and the promised infrastructure fund will see the deficit skyrocket to multiples of the $10-billion the Liberals campaigned on.
At this time last year, Justin Trudeau stated that "the budget will balance itself." That quip may prove to haunt him more than any other.
Gwyn Morgan is the retired founder and CEO of Encana Corp. He has been a director of five global corporations.