Canadians are not used to their government taking controversial positions that are nakedly in the country’s self-interest. So when the federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver issued an open letter this month saying the federal government was not going to allow environmental or any “other radical groups” funded by “foreign special interest groups” to delay the Northern Gateway pipeline decision, it came across to some as strident and confrontational. Governments are, after all, supposed to await the outcome of consultations before declaring a position.
The Harper government seems to have decided Canadians need some straight talk about where our vital interests lie. Too often, our governments feel they must “go along to get along.” Trying hard to be everything to everyone has be come the accepted political norm. But no longer.
Canada withdrew from the Kyoto accord last month because the treaty is not in Canada’s best interests, even though the government knew it would face criticism from some quarters. Now, the government is making it clear that it considers developing our oilsands and ensuring the product can be exported to markets around the world is a vital national interest worth fighting for.
Recent studies have shown that if Canadian oil were able to reach the U.S. Gulf Coast and Asia, the impact of higher revenues to Canadian producers over a 15 year period would amount to an additional $132 billion in Canadian GDP. That’s a lot of revenue that can be taxed to go toward such things as clean water and higher-quality education for Canada’s Aboriginal communities.
Other countries don’t hesitate to assert their vital interests. The U.S. insists on freedom of the seas for its navy. Germany would risk the euro before guaranteeing the debt of its EU partners. Just last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron was greeted by the British press as a hero when he pulled out of an EU consensus because he said it risked eroding London’s role as a financial hub. These countries understand the concept of national interest and have no qualms about asserting it. Now, at last, Canada is following suit.
As this country develops the confidence to play a larger role on the world stage, we need to get used to reconciling the realpolitik concept of national interest with our beliefs and values. As Ed Greenspon recently wrote in a paper for the Canadian International Council, “We must not fall into the trap of confusing policies that merely allow us to feel good from those that actually do good. If we do not advance our interests aggressively, we will quickly lose our ability to promote our values.”
Perhaps Joe Oliver could have used less inflammatory language in his letter and talked about what the federal government could do to mitigate environmental concerns. But he nevertheless put his finger on a national interest that needs to be clear: no single group, whether environmental or aboriginal, should be able to stand in the way of the economic prosperity of the country overall.
Mike Coates is the president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton Canada.