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Theo Argitis: Pierre Poilievre’s tough talk leaves corporate Canada in a precarious position

Commentary

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s invective against lobbyists earlier this month in Vancouver continues to reverberate loudly with Canada’s top business executives and the Ottawa consulting ecosystem that serves them.

For months, corporate Canada has been closely surveilling Poilievre’s messaging to piece together a semblance of what policy would look like under his government, which everyone is assuming is the likely outcome of the next election.

The anti-corporatist tendencies were already evident, but the harshness of Poilievre’s language in his March 8 speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade was a surprise.

As has been widely reported, the Conservative leader called lobbyists “utterly useless” and boasted about how he avoids talking to big business and prefers spending time with workers. 

Poilievre believes there’s been too much cozying up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals and his agenda, which he claims has been at the expense of workers.

Everyone’s trying to make sense of it, and wondering what it all means for them. If it means anything at all.

The comments are first and foremost political narrative. Which is not to suggest they shouldn’t be taken at face value or that they do not reflect something substantive or real.

It’s just to highlight that Poilievre’s intended audience is much wider than the small universe of consultants in Ottawa scrambling to figure out how to engage. Attacking lobbyists and “corporate welfare” is a fan favourite among Conservatives and dovetails nicely into Poilievre’s anti-elite, anti-gatekeeper messaging.

Yet, it would also be a mistake to brush it off as trivial or unimportant.

Poilievre’s attack reflects a lousy situation for the few hundred firms that can be deemed both economically and politically important in Canada, the lens through which Ottawa sees “corporate Canada.”

These are uncertain times for Canadian business.

Their customers are cutting back on spending under the weight of higher interest rates. The economy is eking out some growth, but just barely. We’re lagging behind the U.S. Business investment is falling and capital is fleeing. The policy environment is precarious. 

Poilievre’s hockey glove face wash isn’t exactly what some investors would consider constructive criticism at a time like this.

Daniel Tisch, president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, offered up his rebuttal in a Toronto Star oped this week. What Poilievre describes as sucking up to the government is business leaders needing to work with government—“no matter who is in government.”

To be sure, whether or not Poilievre’s thesis is fair can be a matter of debate. But that’s not really the point.

The point is that the Conservative leader wants corporate Canada to know that he won’t be attending any of their pity parties, especially if they continue to work with the governing Liberals.

An office worker talks on the phone in the financial district of Toronto, on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press.

It’s a power move that can come only with the air of inevitability that the current polls offer up to Poilievre. And the Conservative leader is asserting that power, for two reasons.

Politically, Poilievre wants to deny any successes to the Liberals on the economic front that come with the side benefit of validation from the business community.

Second, and perhaps more important, Poilievre doesn’t want to be saddled—any more than he has to—with a growing stockpile of Liberal policy initiatives he’ll want to reverse.

This is not just a hypothetical concern.

For example, Canada’s big oilsands producers are currently in negotiation with the federal government on a financial backstop for a major carbon capture project in Alberta that could cost billions to the Canadian taxpayer should Poilievre (or anyone else) decide to pause or reverse Trudeau’s carbon pricing regime.

This puts corporate Canada in a squeeze. Companies have a duty to work with the government in power but know full well that many of these policies may not last long after the next election. And Poilievre has let them know he’s keeping score.

For corporate Canada, the prospect of waiting another year for an election is a bleak one.

Steven Globerman: Canadian policymakers should increase free trade at home as protectionism clouds gather

Commentary

The Republican primary is over—not surprisingly, Donald Trump will be the party’s candidate in the presidential election in November. A second Trump presidency, which would likely mean more protectionism by the United States, would be bad news for Canada. Indeed, if elected, Trump has promised to impose an across-the-board 10 percent tariff on all manufactured goods exported to the U.S.

At the same time, Trump’s prospective Democratic opponent, President Joe Biden, has also embraced “America First” trade policies including the provision of massive federal subsidies to encourage domestic investment in several industries including electric vehicles, semiconductor chips, and transportation and clean energy infrastructure. Biden’s strong support for unionized U.S. workers further signals that a second Biden term would pose a serious threat to Canada, as the U.S. is by far the largest foreign buyer of Canadian exports.

The Trudeau government is clearly aware of the threats posed to the bilateral trade relationship, and Canadian diplomats have mobilized to generate support for the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Trade Agreement among state and local politicians and business and labour leaders in the U.S. The agreement is scheduled for a tripartite review in 2026 and U.S. officials may balk at renewing the agreement, especially under a Trump presidency.

The Trudeau government has also sought trade diversification to reduce reliance on the U.S. through initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Trade Strategy. However, the physical distance between Canadian-based exporters and potential customers in Asia creates higher transportation costs and logistical difficulties compared to doing business in North America. Political tensions between Canada and the governments of China and India, the two largest potential markets for Canadian exports in the region, further diminish the prospects for significant trade diversification.

So, faced with the spectre of more trade hostility from the U.S. and the inherent challenges to trade overseas, what should Canadian policymakers do?

In short, make trade easier here at home. Specifically, reduce barriers to trade, investment, and labour mobility between the provinces and territories by broadening and deepening the existing Canada Free Trade Agreement (CFTA). The CFTA, which came into effect in 2017 and was updated in 2023 with the cooperation of all 13 provinces and territories and the federal government, aims to reduce or eliminate barriers to the free movement of people, goods, services, and investment within Canada.

For example, provinces could eliminate provincial marketing boards, which prevent free trade in specific food items (e.g. poultry products) and dismantle government monopolies at the wholesale level for beer and wine, which effectively protect local breweries and wineries from competition. Provinces could also streamline certification standards for various occupations, making it easier for workers to move around the country. And address diverging financial and securities regulations, which discourage interprovincial commerce across a range of industries.

Danielle Smith, centre, Premier of Alberta; Ranj Pillai, left, Premier of Yukon; and Dennis King, Premier of Prince Edward Island, look on during a press conference at the meeting of the Council of the Federation, where Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders meet, in Halifax, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Kelly Clark/The Canadian Press.

In other words, within the CFTA, embed a policy of “mutual recognition,” which would mean that any item of commerce that meets the regulatory requirements of one provincial or territorial government will automatically satisfy the requirements of another provincial or territorial government. Implementing a policy of mutual recognition would effectively oblige individual provinces and territories to drop existing exceptions to provisions of the CFTA (for example, supply management of dairy products, which limits imports to keep prices artificially high). In this regard, the Atlantic provinces currently maintain the greatest number of exceptions. However, Atlantic Canadians would also experience the greatest increase in per-person income levels if trade within Canada became more free. Indeed, if policymakers increase free trade, Canada’s productivity will rise, which in turn will increase the living standards of Canadian workers across the country.

There are obvious political challenges to a more integrated domestic market including a reluctance on the part of provincial governments to eliminate monopolies, such as Ontario’s LCBO, which generates significant government revenue, and lobbying by interest groups to maintain regulations that protect their financial interests. But the federal government should show leadership to surmount these challenges, especially given the uncertain future of trade policy south of the border and around the world.