Kevin Carmichael: The words ‘competitiveness,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘productivity,’ and ‘intellectual property’ didn’t appear in Scheer’s recent economic policy speech
In early April, a couple of guys who once advised Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, respectively, published one of the better works of popular policy research in some time.
Robert Asselin, the Liberal; Sean Speer, the Conservative; and their publisher, the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum adopted a narrative conceit that will look odd to undergraduates who happen to find A New North Star: Canadian Competitiveness in an Intangibles Economy on their reading lists this fall.
The subject will resonate. An economy based on intangibles will speak to college-bound youngsters, as all of them will be gearing up for careers in services, probably in something that involves leveraging software to process data.
What those kids will find incredible is the sight of a “big-L” Liberal and a “big-C” Conservative tackling “big-P” problems — together — out in the open. Teenagers might have heard stories about bipartisanship, but they would have seen very little of it with their own eyes.
Asselin, who now works for BlackBerry Inc., and Speer, an academic at the University of Toronto, reckon politics has become a significant threat to our future prosperity.
An economy dominated by Alphabet Inc. and generation Z demands different policies than one structured around companies such as General Electric Co. and the Baby Boom. Canada’s political class developed a multi-partisan consensus to fit the later, but is making no attempt to reset the baseline for the former.
The country’s “economic competitiveness has been the subject of great debate in recent months, but this discussion has focused on short-term actions and individual policies,” Asselin and Speer say at one point in their paper. “Canada’s competitiveness quandary transcends partisanship and political ideology,” they add later. “Whichever political party wins the next federal election will be faced with these questions and challenges.”
Readers of the Financial Post’s award-winning Innovation Nation project will be familiar with Asselin’s and Speer’s thesis.
We once were in the vanguard of policy making: socialized medicine, free trade, public investment in basic research, fiscal prudence, and inflation targeting all helped Canada excel in the 20th century. Lately, we’ve been falling behind. Our business and political leaders missed the shift to an economy that values ideas and data more than commodities and automobile parts.
“Canada has exhibited a spate of bad habits and outdated thinking when it comes to adapting to big structural change shifts in the global economy; it has always been simpler to rely on our abundance of natural resources for wealth creation and our close relation to the U.S. in adopting new innovations,” Asselin and Speer write.
“Policy makers must become more attuned to the trends of an intangibles economy and, in turn, the extent to which it requires us to adjust, refine, and improve our competitiveness-related policies. The first order of business is to understand what is happening.”
Our business and political leaders missed the shift to an economy that values ideas and data more than commodities and automobile parts
A New North Star received a decent amount of attention after it was released. Carolyn Wilkins, the senior deputy governor at the Bank of Canada, noted the Public Policy Forum’s work on innovation during testimony at the Senate banking committee on May 1.
One place where the work of Asselin and Speer apparently didn’t resonate was in the office of the leader of the Official Opposition.
Andrew Scheer’s speech at an event hosted by the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto on May 16 was billed as a big event; the second of five “vision” statements from the man who currently has the best shot at becoming the next prime minister, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s poll tracker.
The Conservative leader’s vision of the Canadian economy is stale and nakedly partisan. His prepared remarks consisted of almost 5,000 words: “Trudeau” is mentioned 23 times, “deficit” 10 times, and “oil” nine times; “competitiveness,” “innovation,” “productivity,” and “intellectual property” don’t appear at all.
Scheer mentions in passing the need for “smarter investments in areas like basic research and infrastructure.” And he says that the Canada must become a country of “yes” to investments in technology and infrastructure projects that shorten commutes. (He didn’t elaborate on what that means.) Scheer’s only significant policy ideas related to oil: he said he would create a pan-Canadian “corridor” that would make it easier to build pipelines and string power lines, and he said he would stop oil imports by 2030. “An energy independent Canada would be a Canada firing on all cylinders — across all sectors and regions,” he said. “If the United States can do it, so can we.”
Asselin and Speer are fine with keeping one foot in the past; they lament the unwillingness of politicians to talk seriously about the future.
The corridors that hold the most economic promise are the ones that move ideas from Quebec City to Waterloo and between Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Scheer might have appealed to the tech startups that populate those places by promising to make sure public research funds would be dedicated to homegrown companies that promise to keep their IP in Canada, one of Asselin’s and Speer’s recommendations.
Or Scheer might have tried to reach across filter bubbles by acknowledging that balanced budgets, lower taxes, and pipelines aren’t a cure for everything. The innovation economy is based on ideas, therefore education matters more than anything. The Asselin-Speer menu includes digestible items such as mentorship programs for international students, “education bonds” for low-income families and greater emphasis on early childhood education in Indigenous communities.
How many times did Scheer mention “education” in his speech? Zero. Debt? Thirteen.
It was like he was running for election in 1993, not 2019. Asselin and Speer have their work cut out.