With Trudeau re-elected, there are long years ahead

If the government does not become serious about the attraction and retention of capital, and competitive tax rates, the climate in this country will certainly change, but not meteorologically

by Conrad Black

The Hon. Sydney Fisher, left, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King are seen in a photo dated Aug. 12, 1915.

The complacent tenor of the government’s successful re-election campaign was based on Canada’s superior quality of life, the skill of its people, and the stability of its institutions. That is certainly the moderate left’s view and the governing Liberals carried this message and it was, in electoral terms, ratified. The somewhat-less-enthused Conservatives led in the popular vote, but the non-regional parties of the left, Liberals, New Democrats and Greens, while having lots of suggestions of how to be more “progressive” and go farther left, were unanimous in their view that more redistributive activity by the government — taking money from people who had earned it and redeploying it to the benefit (and electoral gratitude) of those who hadn’t — would make Canada even more paradisiacal than it already is.

Even the capable head of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an innovative think-tank and centre of debate, Brian Lee Crowley, writing in this newspaper on Tuesday, declared that the core of conservatism was gratitude for Canada’s comfort, civility and attainments, although he rightly decried the failure to make more progress with natives’ issues, and the sluggishness about delivering oil and gas to export points and to satisfy domestic demand. There is much to be thankful for and I am one of the outspoken advocates of making Canadians more aware that Canada has an astoundingly successful history, from the brave explorers, some of whom, such as La Vérendrye and the d’Ibervilles, were born in Canada, to those who developed Canadian institutions, to the leading figures of Canada’s development from a new Dominion in 1867 to a G7 country today.

It is easy to assume that with half of a rich continent, and a neighbour which, whatever abrasions may occur, has been comparatively peaceable and a receptive and immense market, it was easy to build Canada. But it was very difficult. Baldwin and LaFontaine and Macdonald and Cartier had to agitate enough to gain British assent to Canada’s independence, but not to so irritate the British that they traded their interest in Canada to the United States for other consideration. It would not have been an unendurable fate to join the United States, but it would have been the end of Quebec’s French identity and there would be no election campaigns based as this past one was on the ineffable superiority of Canadian life and institutions.

No other substantial country in the world has had anything like the continuity provided to this country by Macdonald, Laurier and Mackenzie King. These three men were either the co-premier of the so-called United Province of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), prime minister of Canada, or leader of the opposition, from 1856 to 1948. One or other was the effective head of the government of Canada for a total of 65 of those years, in which time Canada progressed from a string of communities along the northern border of the United States, with little lateral relationship between themselves, to a co-founder of the United Nations and the Western Alliance and twice-victorious Allied power in the world wars. Macdonald led the Conservative party for 35 years and Laurier (1887 to 1919) and King (1919 to 1948) led the Liberal party for a combined 61 years. No one who studies it can be unaware of what feats of perseverance, imagination and diligence were required by those three men and many others to emancipate Canada from the British without succumbing to the benign embrace of the Americans, while retaining the goodwill of both and transforming Canada into an important and internationally respected country of nearly 40 million people.

This is the context of last week’s election, in which, as we all noticed, general purrings of satisfaction (and self-satisfaction) produced a confirmation from most voters. It is painful to offer any dissent from this idyllic collective self-perception. But as I wrote last week, nearly as many Quebecers voted for a secessionist party as for the government. And Alberta was effectively told that it could not sell its oil to the world and was handed a death warrant for its time as a prosperous province pouring billions of dollars out to less wealthy provinces. And as I also wrote, the economic news is not good in relative terms. Our taxes are higher in every income bracket for individuals and corporations than in the United States, and the flows of capital in and out of Canada are now negative. For most of my lifetime, apart from petro-states and tax haven-states, Canada was, along with Australia, closely behind the United States as the world’s most prosperous country per capita. We are now exceeded by Austria, Denmark, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, the U.S., Switzerland, Ireland (a legendarily poor country even in the 1960s) and Singapore.

Of those countries, only the United States and Australia would qualify as resource-rich countries, though Germany has a large steel industry and Sweden has an abundance of iron ore and forestry. But Taiwan was a primitive island of thatched homes and shacks when Chiang Kai-shek fetched up there at the end of the Chinese Civil war in 1949. Ireland now has 160 per cent of Canada’s per capita income, through intelligent tax policy; there are notoriously few resources in Ireland. Israel, which when it was founded in 1948 was, as Pontius Pilate allegedly described it, “a land of sand, camels and Jehovah,” now has 80 per cent of Canada’s per capita income and more patents for new technologies than any country except the United States, which has 40 times Israel’s population. South Korea, at the end of the Korean War in 1953, was a land of mud and ruins, the cities rubble heaps reduced by war throughout the Korean peninsula and with an almost entirely unskilled population. Its per capita income is now almost 85 per cent of Canada’s.

Money isn’t everything and our record is not poor, but it does justify concern and we must do better. Climate change is not, as the prime minister claimed on election night, the greatest issue facing Canada. Such an assertion is frivolous, a vanity and a silly and worrisome abuse of his position as the election-winner to reinforce a nonsensical posture that someone in the upper reaches of the government must know is false. Whatever is happening to the climate, we don’t know the extent of it, the direction, whether it will be positive or negative, whether human activity influences it, and we do know that Canada’s impact on the world’s climate is almost zero. If every home in Canada kept coal fires belching all winter, the impact on the world’s climate would be negligible. The government’s position is a wild embellishment on current scientific knowledge amplified by a geometric magnification of Canada’s potential production of greenhouse gases. It is bunk.

If the federal government does not become serious about the attraction and retention of capital, and about competitive tax rates with the United States, the climate in this country will certainly change, but not meteorologically. We have a magnificent country, painstakingly built up by our forebears over 400 years and we are steadily losing ground in comparative standard of living and economic growth to other advanced, as well as some developing, countries. This government is interpreting its slender victory — defeated by the Conservatives in the popular vote and with surging secessionist sentiment in Quebec and Alberta — as a mandate to waste billions more shadow-boxing with the chimera of climate change. These will be difficult years.

Note: Last week I mistakenly wrote that the Bloc Québécois had led the Liberals in the popular vote in Quebec, which was reported on election night, but the Liberals ultimately prevailed; and I wrote that R.B. Bennett was the only prime minister who had won a majority and was defeated in his next election, (in 1935). This was what Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said on election night and I didn’t think about it. In fact, the same happened to Alexander MacKenzie in 1878. I apologize to readers for my errors.

First published in the National Post. 


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