Can Justin Trudeau get big things built?

For Canada to attract billions of dollars in foreign investment, the deepest pockets in the world must regard this country as an oasis of long-term stability. It’s not clear they do.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau operates a crane while touring a crane operator training facility Thursday, August 27, 2015 in Oakville, Ont. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau operates a crane while touring a crane operator training facility Thursday, August 27, 2015 in Oakville, Ont. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Success has many fathers, it’s said; failure is an orphan. Unless you’re Canadian. Thursday’s announcement by TransCanada that it’s abandoning the Energy East pipeline project inspired a nationwide orgy of paternity tests, mostly administered by politicians against their enemies.

Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall said that “for the West to continue on like this in our federal system” amounts to “Stockholm syndrome.” Montreal mayor Denis Coderre gloated, which set Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi off. Lisa Raitt pronounced Justin Trudeau a “disastrous” “failure.” In the Commons at Question Period, the Prime Minister was categorical: ’twas the low price of oil that killed Energy East, and meanwhile it’s not as though Stephen Harper could get anything done either.

READ: The problem with Trudeau’s high road

Certainly the price of oil—and the availability of another outlet for TransCanada’s oil, the apparently-any-day-now Keystone XL pipeline running south into the land of our troubled American neighbours—must have factored into the Energy East decision. Not only were there quick analyses written to that effect on Thursday, there were predictions to that effect written before the National Energy Board changed its evaluation criteria.

But the main protagonist, TransCanada itself, is not mute. The proponent wrote to the NEB to throw in the towel. Its letter names one specific obstacle to continuing: “substantial uncertainty around the scope, timing and cost associated with the regulatory review of the projects [emphasis mine].” The “existing and likely future delays resulting from the regulatory process, the associated cost implications” — and unspecified other “issues and obstacles” facing the projects — were all TransCanada needed to call it a day.

That helps explain why Alberta premier Rachel Notley, who was elected on much the same sales pitch Trudeau used on energy files—energy and the environment need not be antagonistic, a cleaner government will have an easier time finding markets, and so on—had a blunt message for the NEB in her own statement: “Investors need confidence” and “We look forward to seeing that certainty in place soon.”

Living out here as we do in the world of the non-elected, you and I are not required to pick a single culprit for every decision. It’s possible that low resource prices and Donald Trump’s firm “probably” on Keystone had a lot to do with this decision, and that the NEB had a lot to do with it as well.

The current state of affairs—that large and controversial projects designed to achieve legal ends for legitimate businesses somehow never seem to end up getting built—has implications beyond the realm of oil and climate change.

The Trudeau government’s economic plans depend to a great extent on the hope that foreign investors with deep pockets will find Canada a congenial place to park their billions. This is most spectacularly true of the Canada Infrastructure Bank, so cherished by Bill Morneau that I’m told it was never the object of a memorandum to cabinet for general discussion (and potential dissent) among a large number of ministers. Morneau simply announced the Bank in a fall update in 2016 and bankrolled it in his 2017 budget, and from there, it’s up to the world’s pension funds to come shopping for ports, roads and railways to invest in. But the government also wants to make CETA real by attracting big European investments, and it is always hoping for some kind of breakthrough in trade with Asia, especially China.

READ: Canada’s regulatory process will deter Chinese infrastructure investment, says envoy

For the kind of step change in foreign investment that the Trudeau government wants—investments on the scale of many tens of billions of dollars in the aggregate—to happen, the deepest pockets in the world need to be able to regard Canada as an oasis of long-term stability.

It’s not good enough to say that Canada looks like a safer bet than the United States for the next couple of years, or that Canada tops Britain in some ways for the duration of the old sod’s lamentable Brexit adventure. Canada needs to be better than investing anywhere. Indeed, it needs to be better than not investing.

The Infrastructure Bank already comes loaded with some obstacles to the easiest and fastest investment decisions. For instance, it’s said to be aimed at promoting only “greenfield” projects, newly-built developments with their attendant risk of delays and cost overruns, instead of the already-existing “brownfield” projects investors prefer. And we don’t even know what will happen if all the projects that attract investment to the Bank are in one or two provinces, leaving the impression that you can’t count on global investors to play the regional-equity games so dear to our fragile federation.

The bigger concern for today is that you only write a cheque with eight or 10 zeros on it if you think you’re putting your money somewhere pretty safe. A Canada locked in crisis talks with the Trump administration over its key continental trade deal doesn’t look like that place. A Canada whose big-business CEO association accuses the government of driving business from the country doesn’t look like that place. And a Canada where social license never seems to get granted, and any project that crosses three provincial boundaries becomes a bottomless pit of recrimination and finger-pointing, doesn’t look like that place. That’s not a day’s headache. It’s a really big problem.


Can Justin Trudeau get big things built?

  1. Who knows-but one thing for sure, despite all the chest thumping the previous government was unable to win the approval for or build a single pipe line to tide water.
    So why don’t we see how it goes

    How does this come down to Trudeau getting things built anyway? Many oil companies are fleeing the oil sands these days as the price of oil is about half what it was in the days of the Harper Government.

    Another question- will there ever come a day when Canadian reporters don’t frame their queries around Conservative talking points?.

    • You do know the trans Canada pipeline was only requested in 2013 and nothing is going to happen that fast. You cant approve something that has not come on the table yet. The keystone we all know was stopped by Obama, so what in the world could the CPC do about that. There were a couple or 3 smaller pipelines built during the CPC time in power. Your deflection for the liberals is typical, but the facts are recent changes allowed by NEB and little leadership and drive by the current liberals has influenced the latest cancellation by transcanada Pipelines. Lets continue to pay the Saudis and others for there oil, when we could be benefiting huge by using made in Canada oil.

  2. What….industrial age stuff…..or the AI centre in Montreal, Google city in Toronto or a Mag-lev train?

    Maybe some LRT or driver-less cars…

  3. The only purpose of the infrastructure/privatization bank is to transfer risk from the global 0.1%’ers to the Canadian taxpayer. Private profits. Public losses. Well, there is a 2nd purpose, to hide deficit spending and an increase in the national debt in an federal balance sheet entity where it doesn’t show up in the yearly budget.

    That and asset stripping Canada. The global investors will likely only invest in greenfield projects (risk free because of the infrastructure bank) only if they are simultaneously allowed to asset strip existing assets like airports.

  4. The Alberta NDP government has capped carbon emissions from the oilsands. The federal government has signed the Paris Accords, and imposed a national carbon levy.

    As a result, there is no purpose or reason for the NEB to consider carbon emissions other than those from the pipeline itself, since the emissions are contained by national and provincial policies and international agreements.

  5. It seems that investors are canceling projects due to the ever changing rules and regulations allowed by the federal government. Investors have spent billions of dollars in attempts to build large projects in Canada only to find last minute court challenges alter their efforts. There are other jurisdictions where their funding is more welcome. The latest example being the NEB upstream and downstream CO2 emissions requirements. Are automobile manufacturers subjected to the same standards? How about imported petrochemical products? Bombardier’s aircraft?

    • Completely agree with you, but the NEB’s requirements will not take into account the amount of oil Canada will no longer have to purchase and ship (hooray for bunker fuel) from plaves with completely horrible human rights records too. Most of Quebec and Ontario’s oil come from places like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. But hey since we are a net reducer of Carbon in Canada lets continue to do our part and try somehow to offset the US and others for their horrible practices (sarcasm).

  6. If we are talking about building big debt, I have every confidence he will succeed.

    Anything else, not so much.

    • Lol. Well put. Sad. But well put.

      • Our debt is quite safe…..same as it was when Harp was around, in fact.

        • If $30,000,000,000 in new debt each year is safe I would hate to see what you consider unsafe.

          I am not saying Harper did perfect but he had 12 years for a total of $150,000,000,000. The Turd will be at $120,000,000,000 in his 4 years.

          • Rubbish numbers I’m afraid.

            We are safely below our GDP and the IMF gave us their stamp of approval.

        • A majority government. An economy on fire. Job growth (all-be-it mostly in the public sector). These are time of “peace and prosperity”. The $120 billion project debt mentioned by Gonzo are Morneau’s numbers. Trudeau’s change in spending is the 3rd largest change since the 2nd world war. Just a few years ago Trudeau was taking Harper to task for his “reckless spending”. And Harper’s spending did not even set/break any Canadian records.

          Canada is still in economic peril. Did you not see the warning issued earlier this year by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS). It’s the central BANK of central banks. This is why it is difficult to attract foreign spending.

  7. Interesting how the coverage changed.
    Lisa Raitt got the Conservative talking points out there early. This was a disaster and calamity for Canada and the economy and, of course, all Trudeau’s fault.
    The media went along with the bad, bad, news scenario.
    Then whoops. Montreal mayor is celebrating that this horrible project is dead.
    Says all Quebec municipalities united. Province against it.
    Whoops Northern Ontario municipalities against it. Happy.
    Whoops aboriginal organizations from across Canada celebrating the end of this dangerous project.
    Whoops. They powerful environmental groups from all across the country are popping champagne corks in celebration.
    So Kenney and Wall are whining. What else is new? Is the population of Montreal greater than either Alberta or Sask.
    Guys do not threaten to leave. You are not Quebec. Central Canada will say bye bye.
    Raitt overreached. A habit with these Conservatives.

    • [[[[[[APPLAUSE]]]]]]

    • With Energy East, Montreal could have become a refinery hub for exporting refined products, particularly diesel to Europe, displacing Houston, since it is closer.

      A refinery hub would mean lower gasoline prices in Lower Canada, which meant the Quebec government would be able to raise gasoline taxes, and gain “free” revenue (along with the additional revenue from becoming a refining hum).

      Ditto for New Brunswick, where they would have a strategic advantage to displace Houston in the Atlantic US market.

      • Yes, agreed. There was so many businesses and jobs generated by this pipeline and refineries to the east … it seemed infinite.
        I too, can add. 1+1=2. 2+1=3 and on it goes.
        Have you seen the “new” math being taught in schools. It is about concepts … rather than simple reality.

        • But for what ever reason, crazy or not, they didn’t want it.

    • “Guys do not threaten to leave?” Didn’t England once way that the American colonies? Trust me, if the west decides to leave it will be for real, not an ploy for cash like Quebec.

      Central Canada can wave good bye – and the west will happily wave goodbye to Bombardier, the largest non sovereign debt in the world, the senate, transfer payments and the CBC.

  8. Trudeau and Trump are both in the “media business”. Slightly different style.
    I have never felt less Canadian – what with everyone’s rights, first, except the majority of Canadians.
    What happened to one country , one Nation – Canada.
    Trudeau, like his pal, has resorted to mass confusion. Using terms, ahhh, and a minority language, at whim. So clever. So elite for any Canadian outside of Ontario.
    Take the term “Feminist”. Trudeau calls himself a feminist, along with Ivanka Trump and Jian Ghomeshi! It makes you wonder what language we are speaking up here.
    The naivete of this man, makes me wonder if his pillow talk is about unicorns.

    • Well WE are speaking English…..I have no idea what you’re speaking

  9. I’m not sure whats worse, the absolute disinterest in the Trudeau government over the economy of the West, or the halfwitted P3 investment bank that will end up costing Canadian 2-3 dollars for every dollar the government would spend to do the same things? Obviously with interest rates near zero, the best solution to “infrastructure” spending is to borrow the money. Involving banks, wealthy individuals, etc leaves us with messes like the 407 that never go away.

    Finally, how come every time Bombardier has any kind of issue, the government of Canada has to intervene, but when 100s of thousand of jobs are lost in oil or other resource industries its the “market”. Clearly the market that they love so much told Canadian tax payors that building planes in Canada was a bad idea before Bombardier even bought up that business? 2016 “Bombardier sold the CSeries for $4 million on average per plane less than what it costs to make”, b but a pipeline that will employ thousands is a bad idea, even though it will actually reduce reliance on the US market and make money?

  10. The story headline is – “Can Justin Trudeau get big things built?”. Does his CV reflect such accomplishments and achievements ? No. So why would anyone expect such miraculous achievements now. He’s running the show with the life skill sets he has which includes lots of selfies and Kardashian style media appearances.