Learning to compete and to stop whining about it

There’s a growing sense that we can survive and thrive in an unfettered arena. But old insecurities die hard.

For Canadians, competition has long been kind of like that ill-fitting sweater your granny knit — it itches, and it’s not all that comfortable. We’ve been much more at ease with banking, media and telecommunications oligopolies, the Canadian Wheat Board and milk prices set by a dairy cartel. It’s easier this way and conveniently avoids the fear that if we had to compete, we might not come out on top.

But there are growing signs recently that Canadians’ customary unease with competition is giving way to a greater confidence that we can survive and thrive in an unfettered arena. The Vancouver Olympics proved our mettle, and not by accident. Own the Podium was a deliberate campaign to win more medals than any other country. Critics called it “un-Canadian,” but Olympic organizers knew that Canadians want to win, and they don’t mind saying so.

It’s a discernible shift in the national psyche, one that is reflected in the reaction to the soaring loonie. The Canadian dollar is hovering around parity with the U.S. greenback, and if analysts are right, it’s only going up. The last time that happened, in 2007, Canadian businesses were near apoplectic in their demands that government “do something.” This time around manufacturers may not be happy, but they are coping. They’ve kicked the crutch of the 60cents dollar and are managing to wean themselves off the U.S. market, with growing exports to Germany, Mexico and Australia.

Perhaps the most dramatic embrace of competition has come in the heavily protected telecommunications and book publishing sectors, where Canada is virtually alone among industrialized countries in barring foreign ownership due to “cultural” considerations.

In April, Ottawa gave the goahead to American online book retailer Amazon to set up a distribution centre on Canadian soil. The protests from booksellers and publishers were mild compared to the uproar sparked by the Conservative government’s decision to allow Egyptian-backed mobile upstart Globalive to offer wireless service.

Both decisions are significant, not only in terms of the implications for a more competitive marketplace, but in the brisk, rather businesslike manner in which they were taken. And while the feds skirted the thornier issue of foreign ownership rules with these approvals, the Tories said they want to see limits on foreign ownership of telecom companies raised, a political minefield to be sure.

This is heady stuff in the normally jelly-like world of Canadian political prevarication. And what’s more, a few provincial premiers are looking to stick their necks out as well. British Columbia’s Gordon Campbell in particular stands out for his willingness to introduce a contentious carbon tax and a harmonized sales tax (HST), all the while turning the chronically underperforming province into a low-tax, competitive haven.

Other premiers have also found their backbones of late: Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty is forging ahead with the deeply unpopular HST, while Quebec’s Jean Charest is introducing user fees on health care and may even hike university tuition and hydro rates, two of the province’s most subsidized sacred cows.

Now, you might say all this is small potatoes, especially compared to a country like Australia, which has managed to institute a national securities regulator, abolish dairy marketing boards and remove foreign ownership caps on media and domestic airlines. In contrast, Canada’s last truly bolddecision to embrace competition was the 1989 free trade agreement with the U.S.

Still, taken all together, it signals an important sea-change. The Competition Bureau, the federal watchdog charged with policing anti-competitive practices, is being dogged in pushing the real estate industry to open its listing service to greater competition. And while no laws have changed yet, Canadians seem generally unflustered by the prospect of a foreign-controlled mobile carrier, a strong dollar or an explicit goal of kicking butt at the Olympics.

That’s not to say we won’t choke in the final few minutes of play. The federal government could stop short of allowing full foreign investment in telecom, for example. Or, the much-anticipated national securities regulator could be headquartered someplace other than Ontario.

Premier Shawn Graham tried to make have-not New Brunswick more competitive by selling its indebted provincial utility, NB Power, and ended up falling on his sword. Even the Vancouver Olympics detoured into familiar parochialism during the opening and closing ceremonies, lecturing the world on what makes us so great while regaling us with blow-up beavers.

Old habits die hard, but here’s to that sweater fitting a little better each day.

Andrea Mandel-Campbell is an author and host on Business News Network