‘Ottawa’ Michael Den Tandt: Curious Torpor from Liberals on Major, Important Issues Involving Quebec
Justin Trudeau is his own Quebec lieutenant — or “general,” to use the prime minister’s term. He has a substantial Quebec caucus, 40 strong. He has a cluster of important ministers — Stephane Dion, Marc Garneau, Melanie Joly and Diane Lebouthillier, to name four — from la belle province.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that torpor has taken hold on a number of big economic files that touch Quebec. It seems not much of consequence is getting settled in the province — or, as one senior industry source put it, there’s “nobody running the show.”
Consider the spectrum of very important, inevitably controversial, economically and politically crucial Quebec-related questions facing the federal government now. It’s a growing and increasingly daunting list.
First and not least, there’s naval shipbuilding. Under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, in 2011, Canada embarked on a massive rebuild of the rusted out Royal Canadian Navy and Coast Guard, at a projected cost of $34 billion. As I and others have reported, the rebuild became mired in delays and cost overruns under the Conservatives. It remains so under the Trudeau Liberals, despite promises of redress.
The root problem is simple; it’s the need or political compulsion, which the Liberals and Conservatives share, to view military procurement primarily as an exercise in domestic job “creation,” rather than a task of getting the best equipment at the best price in the least possible time.
But even if you buy the argument that the ships can be built only in Canada by Canadian companies, the file is strangely dormant. The Davie yard, in Levis, Que., is the country’s physically largest by far. The company stands ready-aye-ready to take on a share of the work on the biggest planned vessels, whether it be a three-season polar icebreaker or the two massive supply ships. Quebec’s federalist Liberal premier, Philippe Couillard, has actively lobbied on Davie’s behalf. The response from Ottawa has been silence.
Next, Bombardier. The proffered federal bailout for the aircraft maker, $1-billion worth, has been in the wind for months, virtually since the Trudeau government was sworn in. Last winter, before a spate of big contracts were announced for the CSeries jet, the bailout seemed inevitable. But time has worn on and events may well have passed Bombardier by (which is a good thing, I would argue). It’s difficult to imagine how Ottawa could justify allotting $1 billion in public money to an industrial program that now seems to be managing adequately on its own.
Most important, from a national economic perspective, is the Energy East pipeline. We last heard a great din about this some four weeks ago, when Premier Couillard called for a “reasonable and respectful” debate over the proposed pipeline route, which is to snake through southern Quebec to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
It seems, reading between the lines, the Trudeau government very much wants to see a pipeline or pipelines built (ideally there needs to be new capacity built heading east, west and south from Alberta), but is perplexed by the political problem of confronting increasingly strident pipeline opponents, both local and international. Here again time is passing, and time is not the government’s friend.
Among other tragic consequences, the Fort McMurray wildfire has dealt another severe blow to an industry suffering a devastating commodity-price downturn. Oil pipelines should be, for adherents of “evidence-based decision-making,” as the Liberals hold themselves to be, a no-brainer; safer, less costly, cleaner than every shipping alternative, especially rail. Pipelines require high-profile champions, particularly where populist opposition is greatest, or that opposition will not be overcome.
Yet from senior Quebec ministers — including Trudeau and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr again Tuesday in question period — there is this excess of delicacy. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is left to carry the can nationally for an industrial policy that is vital for the future prosperity of the country. Setting aside the obvious — that Ontarians and Quebecers might pay more attention if the message were coming from their own elected representatives — how is this fair?
In a bygone era, old Ottawa hands say, such stasis would not have long endured, because the designated Quebec lieutenant — Marc Lalonde under Pierre Trudeau — would never have allowed it. But pragmatic doers and spear-carriers are in short supply in Trudeau’s Quebec caucus, industry sources say.
Neither Garneau nor Dion is so inclined. The new entrants lack personal contacts in industry and experience, as do their staffers in many cases. And there is no longer a compliant Liberal Senate, well-stocked with party bagmen and time-servers, to be a back-channel point of contact between industry and cabinet.
Is this way of doing politics better? That’s an argument worth having. Certainly it looks more virtuous, on its face, than the Quebec brokerage politics of old. But virtue in government lasts only if it can also deliver results. Where are the results?