National Column: Canada’s stability shines in a “Sea of Troubles”

by Paul Wells

Stephen Harper used to call it the Sea of Troubles.

“Yes, Canada is doing relatively well,” Harper said at a campaign stop in St. John’s in 2011, as he began putting a historic thumping on Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals.

“But a Sea of Troubles is lapping at our shores.”

It was, in those days, a feature of every campaign stop. He would repeat the pitch in 2015, but listlessly, inconsistently, the way he did so much else last year. But in 2011 Harper laid it on thick at every stop.

Sea of Troubles. “Disaster in the Pacific, chaos in the Middle East, debt problems in Europe and all kinds of challenges – some very serious challenges – south of our border,” he said in St. John’s. “Canada – this country – is the closest thing the world has to an island of stability and security. And we’ve got to keep it
that way.”

Harper’s message worked as politics because it had the ring of truth. The world is always a mess, and Canada usually looks pretty good by comparison. Harper’s point was essentially defensive: don’t screw it up. His tactical goal was to highlight the cost, as he saw it, of handing control over our island of stability to some nutty coalition of Liberals and New Democrats.

The surprise, as I talk to Liberals in this long quiet summer about what lies ahead for their government, is that they are once again talking about the trouble and woe facing the rest of the world. They see Canada’s relative stability not only as a political advantage but as a potential source of competitive edge internationally.

One senior Liberal – no, not that one; another one – told me Canada’s competitive advantage is that it is starting to look like “the only sane Western society.” And where Harper’s Sea of Troubles pitch was deeply introverted and defensive, Justin Trudeau’s government will seek to use Canada’s relative serenity to lure trade and investment.

Let’s do the tour. Britain just voted to leave the European Union. It will spend the next three years sorting itself out. The EU as an institution, ditto. France elects a new president, and Germany a new chancellor, in 2017. Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front will probably make it at least as far as the second round of voting in France. Angela Merkel is widely thought to be in trouble in Germany. Even if Le Pen is shut out and Merkel survives, much of the discourse in both countries will be about getting tougher and more restrictive on immigration.

Look south. Brazil’s senate is impeaching its president, Dilma Rousseff, in a move that seems deeply partisan and unlikely to get at the roots of real corruption there. Venezuela is a black hole. Wherever else you look – Turkey? Russia? – you don’t see a lot of sound investment in human and physical capital.

I’m increasingly confident the United States will pass on a chance to make Donald Trump its next president. But no president dances alone. Hillary Clinton would face embittered Republicans in both houses of Congress, and her domestic agenda is so vague it’s hard to imagine her making much progress in the early years of her presidency.

Then there is Canada, whose advantages in many ways predate the current federal government: Low debt and taxes. Both going up, thanks to the Liberals, but even then, lower than they had been for many years here. Political stability across levels of government. Serious people, at last, as mayors of any big city you can name. A deeply slumbering Quebec sovereignty movement.

The relative ease with which Canada welcomed Syrian refugees last winter is part of the story the Trudeau government wants to tell. “I think the openness of Canadians to immigrants is a competitive advantage for Canada,” Immigration Minister John McCallum told Bloomberg in July.

Now, what’s the goal of all this? Attracting foreign investment. I wrote here recently that sluggish global growth is the biggest problem facing the Trudeau government. Their fondest hope is that very large-scale foreign investment can offset it. That’s why Trudeau has been courting private investment firms like Blackrock. And it’s why he will turn the G-20 summit in Hangzhou into early September into a longer visit to China. Blackrock controls $5 trillion in investments. China controls more. Both are awesomely unsentimental about any leader’s personal charms. Trudeau’s bet is that Canada’s competitive advantage is becoming so solidly entrenched that the big money will be willing to listen.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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