The vision thing


Dan Gardner on the federal budget.

.. the real killer is, as George H. W. Bush said, the vision thing. There isn’t one. The government has no vision.

Neither do the opposition parties. And don’t look to corporations, labour, the non-profit sector, or any other component of Canadian public life. They’re as myopic as the political leadership…

That is the sort of incoherence you can expect when narrow policy choices are not guided by a broad vision.

And no, contrary to what some commentators seem to think, the fault for this lack of vision is not Stephen Harper’s alone.

Canada is brimming with little ideas, but lacking in anything grand and ambitious. There are plenty of vague sentiments, but no clear goals. There’s lots of talk about next month and next year but little about the next decade or three.


The vision thing

  1. I agree with Dan Gardner’s point about the lack of vision. Examples of grand ambitious visions:

    -Massive federal investment in carbon sequestration projects in Ft. Mac. Not only would these cut down on GHG emissions from the oilsands, but if the technology is successful there would be a global market for it.

    -High speed rail.

    -Massive federal investment in nuclear power, using France as a model. Fund research in Uranium hydride nuclear “batteries” that could eventually replace diesel generators for remote northern communities and mining projects. Fund research in nuclear thermochemical sulfur-iodine cycles for hydrogen production, like the US and France are doing.

    -Federal investment in the Mackenzie pipeline and Bathurst Inlet Road.

    • Also, getting really serious about Prince Rupert and the Pacific Gateway. If something is being done about this, it sure hasn’t been in the papers.

      • And what about the most crucial need of all – a puck moving defenceman, elite goaltending, a scorer or two and the right coaching for the Ottawa Senators. Priorities, people.

        • Senators
          Maybe you better take the nuclear route – talk to the frog..

          • That’s “nucular”, honey. Daddy told you.

            Based on Melnyk’s misstep last week, I’m not going anywhere near a line that has anyone blowing up.

          • Actually, I think that Harper should make full use his power to appoint Senators – he should override the NHL draft system and appoint some first-rate talent to the Senators’ starting line.

        • j-j P o j-j To dream . . . the impossible dream . . . j-j P o j-j

      • Don’t go all regional on us , Jack. L’il MacKay is gently stroking the flank of a pony called The Atlantic Gateway , too. All the Maritime sharpies are getting on board and he’s taking them for rides.

        I have a nephew in Nunavut who feels terribly isolated in all this.

    • What’s with the nuclear stuff? I live in a small Northern community. We need geo-thermal. France has problems with its reactors due to rising summer temps. I like hi-speed rail though.

      • Geothermal is a great investment for some northern communities, especially in the Yukon. However, in many places the geothermal gradient isn’t high enough to make drilling economical.

        Where do you live?

        • Hay River NWT. Wer’e bad diesel users.

    • My understanding is that carbon sequestration’s only observable outcome is to employ people who are attempting to sequester carbon underground. (Plus a nice little margin for the employer of course.) But perhaps there’s been progress I’m unaware of…

      • My understanding is that carbon sequestration’s only observable outcome is to employ people who are attempting to sequester carbon underground

        That’s usually the case when a technology is mostly in the R&D phase. However, there are many successful geosequestration pilot projects around the world – look it up on Wikipedia, as a start.

        As with all such technologies the major challenge is to improve efficiency and reduce costs to make them economically feasible.

        If geosequestration in Fort Mac is powered by electricity from nuclear plants, the GHG reduction would be equivalent to hundreds of thousands of windmills.

    • And yet those are exactly what Gardner is talking about.. ideas, perhaps slightly larger ones, but really they boil down to a hodgepodge of projects, not a grand vision.

      A grand vision would be Canada is going to become the leader in ensuring the world can meet its energy needs in a clean, safe, affordable manner — and that vision would include all of the above, as well as serious funding for education and the development of alternative energy sources and lower energy use products.

    • I don’t know why we’d think for one minute about subsidizing more nuclear generation capacity when it has been such a white elephant for so long, and when we have massive hyrdo-electric resources in this country, but little connection between provinces for sharing them.

      Southern Ontario is barely connected with northern Ontario, and not linked at all with Manitoba, which has surplus capacity now (and more potential). Saskatchewan and Alberta are both burning coal to generate electricity and could be using more hydro from Manitoba if there was an east west distribution grid.

      A vision for Canada should be based on energy connectivity, not just to US markets but pan-Canadian so that the whole country could benefit from reduced energy costs AND emissions. Should also be based on equitable access to the grid for small scale energy producers, so that they can sell their surpluses and increase the total supply.

      Nuclear is more expensive, takes longer to initiate and comes with unresolved issues with safety and long term storage of waste. And then there are still the same issues with distribution.

  2. Those looking for a primer on the “vision thing” might start with reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations 1990, or a targeted follow-up study Canada at the Crossroads: The Reality of a New Competitive Environment a Study 1991.

    Porter points out the problems with countries that are blessed with natural resources and derive their high standard of living primarily by developing these resources and exporting them. They become less innovative and don’t move up the value chain – into secondary and tertiary industries, or high value added (high tech). I believe he referred to this as a “factor” based economy. Think of hewers of wood, drawers of water.

    So, what has happened since the 1991 study? The oil sands became economic, and the whole economy turned regressed backwards towards more resource based industry by throwing a great deal of our collective eggs into that basket.

    However, centres of excellence did evolve in Waterloo, for example, with the arrival of RIM etc.

    I recall two striking examples of old economy and new economy thinking.

    Mike Lazaridis, a co-founder of RIM (yes, that one) a couple of years ago was giving a speech (Empire Club in T.O.?) talking about the need to invest heavily in research and education in the high tech sector, while shortly thereafter, Charlie Fischer, CEO of Nexen, was calling for more training of blue collar workers etc to support the oil sands manic expansion plans.

    Only one I would consider “visionary”. A trait sadly lacking elsewhere within Canada.

    • Training blue collar workers may not seem “visionary”, but it is desperately needed. Even with the recession looming there is still a shortage of skilled workers in many trades, like welding and pipefitting.

      Many of the vaunted “new economy” jobs can be outsourced to low wage countries like India. This is why welders enjoy more job security than people with IT degrees.

      • Yes, for the short term. What do they do when all of the pipelines are built and the pipes have been fitted together?

        It’s like a frog that keeps on cranking out tadpoles when the river is high and the fish aren’t running. Looks good so far, Kermit. Don’t worry about the drought or the melting glaciers…

        • What do they do when all of the pipelines are built and the pipes have been fitted together?

          I don’t know. What do computer programmers do when all the computers have been programmed? My question makes as much sense as your question.

          Skilled workers like welders have transferable skills. They move from project to project and from company to company, and their skills are usually in demand.

          As for your “drought and melting glaciers” comment, if you scroll up to my first post you’ll see my suggestion for investment in GHG reduction by investing in energy technology projects. The projects, incidentally, are conceived by scientists and inventors, designed by engineers and draftsmen, and built by welders and other tradespeople.

          • Skilled workers like welders have transferable skills. They move from project to project and from company to company, and their skills are usually in demand.

            Yes, they can always move down to Texas or the other Gulf states and help build the refineries and petrochemical plants, the destination of where the unprocessed bitumen is headed. Not sure where all of the lesser skilled people and professionals will end up – you know those that migrated to Alberta and bought houses etc. during the “boom”. Of course all of the high tech companies and others necessary for diversification have since left Calgary as the office rents got too high and there was not access to capital – too many focused on short term quick returns in energy plays.

            Well, enjoy the slow boil. The water I’m sure feels rather comfortable right now…

      • Careful now. You may be unwittingly encouraging the development of ” union guys “.

    • Ironic: A Blackberry is 75% plastic, that is, made from oil.

      • The value of which is like 10 cents.

  3. On a frivolous note.
    I suggest we dig up the railway [ coast to coast – inc NL to keep D boy happy ] Then lay it down again with the same 18thc tech. That outta stimulate the hell out of the place.

  4. Err, um, do you guys remember an election held, oh, about five months ago now? See, there were these two parties whose leaders had a great vision for Canada.

    One party didn’t even have enough of a vision to put out a party platform until just a few days before voting day.

    Guess which party won? Guess which party didn’t even get a single seat? Guess which leader isn’t a leader anymore?

    • Dion was a visionary. Unfortunately, he had the wrong vision. The Green Shift was fatally flawed for many reasons that have been discussed elsewhere.

      Harper, to his eternal discredit, is not a visionary. Iggy doesn’t seem like a visionary either, though it is too early to tell.

      • Easy to take things apart…not so easy to build something.

        The Green Shift as a pre-election platform may have been the fatal flaw, but as a paradigm to focus stimulus packages, it makes total sense.

      • Sorry, The Green Shift may have been ‘fatally flawed’ as you like to think, but that doesn’t explain the Green Party, or the fact that the party with the demonstratively weakest vision won the most votes.

        I happen to think vision IS needed. But I also think Canadians hear ‘vision’ and think ‘ideology’. And I think Canadians want practical solutions to real problems–to hell with theories with names.

      • Thre’s a difference between being a visionary and having visions.

        • Mackenzie King had both.

  5. The unfortunate side-effect of lacking any “vision” (let’s reduce that down to “long-term plan”), in terms of this “Economic [in]Action Plan”, is that all of this debt we’re digging ourselves into is going to be dead weight with no significant returns. The Conservatives seemed to have missed the point of government spending to spur economic activity.

    While not surprising, it is an awful shame. Granted, those who can afford home renovations or have a recreational property will be enticed to spend, money going into the register at Home Depot and into the pocket of contractors and labourers. But this “shot in the arm”, as Flaherty likes to say, is much akin to tossing kindling on the fire. It will burn brightly for a short while but won’t contribute to the sustained radiant heat that logs bring.

    Infrastructure is where government money is best spent. It has been proven to give us the most “bang for buck”, the latest CIBC reports confirm this. Yet this “[in]Action Plan” throws all sorts of obstacles in the way of federal funds being paid out, the least of which being the 1/3 municipal & provincial funds matching requirements. How much of this $4 billion is actually going to be paid out? Adding insult to injury, a paltry $700 million is earmarked for federal infrastructure projects–including long-neglected toxic site clean-up.

    “But surely Canadians as consumers know best, Chris,” you might say. I am not saying that home-building and home renovation are necessarily bad things. What I am saying is that direct investment in projects that have a sustained and long-term return, such as a mobile workforce, healthy citizenry, and well-funded researchers, give *more* value for our deficit bucks. Such government spending will boost our sagging productivity over the long-term. The most efficient use of this mortgage we’re taking out on the Canada of our grandchildren should be given more attention. We should be putting on the fire logs of serious, no-strings, upgrades to public transit, hospitals, and water treatment facilities. Sadly, that is not this case in this budget.

    Sad, but not surprisingly, given a Prime Minister who just months ago decried any serious infrastructure spending as “grandiose plans” and advocated a mantra of inaction. It’s ironic that this budget initiative has been titled just the opposite. A Conservative budget by any other name would smell as sour. The real tragedy, however, is the lasting legacy that Harper will leave for future generations. And with little to show for it.

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