by Tim Harper
If Justin Trudeau could lift the Canadian economy based on optimism, “positivity,” confidence and smiles, he would be presiding over much more than a country declared hip by some late-to-the-party arrivals.
He would be presiding over a global juggernaut.
Canadians will generally applaud a leader who goes abroad and talks up our country, celebrates our diversity, speaks confidently about our future and cuts a swath through a blue-chip global gathering.
No one wants to disappear down the rabbit hole of darkness, and if Trudeau is glad-handing with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Spacey and the ubiquitous Bono while we are being broadsided at home with glum economic news, well, this is the upbeat style that seduced us on the campaign trail mere months ago.
But Trudeau is also risking something else with his relentlessly upbeat sloganeering and celebrity status.
He is close to being defined by a self-created optimism gap.
He has already fallen into the trap at home, where optimistic predictions of modest $10-billion budget deficits and revenue-neutral tax changes have been swallowed up by economic reality.
He skated away from the optimism gap when it became evident that a target of 25,000 Syrian refugees arriving in this country by the end of 2015 was unworkable, but it is was important to hold fast to that target because it made us feel good, we were doing the right thing, the country was “back.”
The optimism gap is sometimes the reason his words on embracing the levers of soft power and the greater good in people is interpreted by some as a tepid reaction to the evil of terror. Now he is optimistically trying to rebrand the country in the eyes of global investors.
“My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources, I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness,’’ Trudeau told the World Economic Forum this week.
The line is a bit cheesy, but that should not detract from its importance.
If you are already hurting in the oilpatch, the line must have hurt.
When Trudeau touts this country’s high-tech, biotech, knowledge industry and entrepreneurial class, he is not kicking our resource sector to the curb, but he is signalling a major overhaul of economic emphasis in this country and he is right to do so.
Yes, the resource sector lives and dies in cycles, but there is a different feel to the plunge in commodity prices this time. Most of the pain is being felt in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador but it is hurting everyone in this country.
There is no light at the end of this cycle and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz acknowledged this week that we have a two-track economy in which other sectors will step up to compensate for the battered resource sector.
According to Natural Resources Canada, the energy sector directly or indirectly accounted for 5.2 per cent of the Canadian workforce in 2014 and directly or indirectly contributed 13.7 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Resources as a whole, at the end of 2014, were directly or indirectly responsible for 1.8 million jobs and almost 20 per cent of our gross domestic product.
But the Canadian delegation to Davos illustrated this change of emphasis by Trudeau and the repudiation of the hewers of wood era of Stephen Harper.
Those travelling with Trudeau included his finance minister, Bill Morneau, his international trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, his economic development minister, Navdeep Bains, his environment minister, Catherine McKenna, and his Treasury Board president, Scott Brison. The natural resources minister, Jim Carr, was not there.
This rebranding already sparked a gentle rejoinder from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and raised fears it will heighten tensions in Alberta where there is already wariness about Trudeau’s attitude toward resources.
There is, after all, history when it comes to energy policy and the Trudeau name in Alberta, something the current prime minister acknowledged head on in a Calgary speech last year.
He sounded optimistic that won’t happen again.
A bigger source of tension will come from Thursday’s stated opposition to the Energy East pipeline from an amalgamation of 82 Montreal metropolitan jurisdictions. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said the potential costs of a cleanup far outstripped any economic benefits from a pipeline that would take Alberta crude to a New Brunswick refinery. The reaction from Alberta was fast and loud.
Resourcefulness may eventually trump resources, but a resource collision still looms in this country.
Here’s hoping Trudeau isn’t overly optimistic about the ease with which this can be handled.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@nutgraf1
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services