Businesspeople often badmouth or roll their eyes at politicians they view as incompetent or just insufficiently business-savvy, but the shoe was on the other foot on Sept. 23, as B.C. Premier Christy Clark gave some high-powered CEOs a lesson in building public support for your project.
The event was a conference on Realizing Canada’s Asia-Pacific Opportunity, organized by the Business Council of B.C. It was full of corporate and political heavy hitters and security was tight. The panel on Canada’s Asian Opportunities featured Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel, Shell Canada president Lorraine Mitchelmore, HSBC Canada head Lindsay Gordon and Teck Resources’ Don Lindsay. Barely suppressing their frustration and impatience with the pace of project approvals—notably Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat, B.C.—they stated the macro reasons why regulation needs to be streamlined and a national energy “vision” realized. Oil and gas “is a trapped resource in North America,” Gordon said, clearly siding with co-panellists more directly invested in the sector.
“Our oil is basically landlocked in North America,” Daniel reiterated. “It is isolated from world pricing.”
“We’re the only major oil producer that does not have access to a world market,” Mitchelmore said, citing an estimate that her industry is foregoing $18 billion a year by not being able to sell at the world Brent price.
In short, they were complaining. Grouchy. Even a bit condescending. Why doesn’t the public see things our way, they seemed to be saying. “For me it comes back to having to influence public attitudes,” Gordon said at one point. “We have to educate the public.”
On the basis of their presentation, I wouldn’t give Gateway much of a hope.
Then Premier Clark blew into the conference. She didn’t address Gateway specifically, but made some encouraging comments that her province “can do something great for Canada,” not just creating opportunity in B.C. but in other provinces too. This was by way of pushing her new jobs plan, which uses the tagline “Canada starts here.” (A full-page ad proclaiming the new initiative appeared the same day in The Wall Street Journal.)
Garnering a standing ovation, she had the CEOs beat, in a number of ways. First, she made it personal, talking about her worldview that parents, not schools or governments, are the builders of good citizens. And what do parents need? “They need a job,” she proclaimed. With that she deftly brought the provincial and national interest back home to the personal interest. More than that, instead of trying to “educate” her constituents, she treated them as equals, taking nothing for granted and attempting to sell them on her vision. “I’m going to be B.C.’s top salesperson,” she said.
If projects like Gateway are going to go through, the first thing the dour CEOs ought to do is get Premier Clark on board.