The Prime Minister’s Northern agenda: Where’s the beef?
By Keith Halliday, Up Here Business
October 2010 - It was nice to be on the Prime Minister’s mind, even if it was only during a brief visit in August. It was a good break from the day-to-day grind. It was fun to watch the ruthless advance men from the Prime Minister’s Office, the panicky regional officials with the briefing book no one will read, the big name journalists trying to get their Rogers iPhones to work, and the star-struck locals dragged out as props at the big announcement.
But now, with the PM safely back in his Ottawa cocoon and the PMO people having erased our contact info from their blackberries, has anything really changed?
Looking back on Stephen Harper’s visit, the big question for Northern business people is whether it was just a boondoggle with some nice speeches and a few rehashed spending announcements, or if it meant something
tangible for the economy.
In short, is Harper’s interest in the North – which seems genuine – likely to translate into business opportunities?
And let’s think big. Who cares about a few business development grants here and there? Prime Ministers can have a huge impact on the North. Every decade or two a PM makes a decision that transforms the Northern business landscape. In the 1940s, it was letting the Americans build the Alaska Highway. Land prices at Second and Main in Whitehorse have never looked back. In the 1950s, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker built the Dempster Highway, which brought a generation of growth to the Mackenzie Delta.
In the 1980s, the territories hit a gusher when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney Okayed formula financing, with the helpful encouragement of Deputy PM (and Yukon MP) Erik Nielsen. The three territories now get between $19,000 and $31,000 per person from Ottawa. Many entrepreneurs were well positioned to capture some of this growth in demand for office space and housing.
In the 1990s, the feds supported the creation of a third territorial government in Nunavut, directing hundreds of millions in new money northward.
So does Harper have anything this big in mind for us? So far it doesn’t look like it. He announced $497-million for new satellites that, among other things, can monitor the North. That’s big money, but it will be spent elsewhere and while the images will be useful they aren’t on the same scale as the projects mentioned above.
The PM has also announced a bunch of defence upgrades in the North. But the big new polar icebreaker is delayed until sometime in the next decade. There have been persistent rumours about the new Arctic patrol vessels being late, over budget and slimmed down to the point of being mere “slushbreakers.” There is the new “berthing and refuelling facility” in Nanisivik, but since the government won’t even call it a “port” one wonders how significant it will really be. On his latest visit, Harper announced the location of the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay. But don’t hold your breath. It’s not targeted to be operational until 2017.
There’s a long list of other worthy but small initiatives the federal government is working on in the North. All will inject a few bucks into the economy, which is good. But nothing really big.
The PM points out that it takes time to do big things. True enough, in the routine world of government.
But if he wants to position himself as a leader with a Northern vision, I expect more and I expect it faster.
If he has $9-billion for flashy F-35 jet fighters, then the icebreaker should be built now. If he has hundreds of millions for new prison construction, then he should build that research centre now and make sure its scientists have beefy budgets.
And, perhaps most importantly, if he really wanted economic development in the North he would be aggressively pushing the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline. It’s the single biggest economic development opportunity in the region. Most of its sorry five-year saga in Joint Review Panel purgatory occurred while he was PM.
The papers are full of stories of Harper and his PMO pressuring people who get in the way of his priorities. Nuclear safety officials lose their jobs, RCMP superintendents who write reports in favour of the gun registry end up on extended French training, and Statistics Canada leaders who stand up for the census are forced to resign.
Harper doesn’t seem to be pushing the Mackenzie project with the same vigour, which suggests it’s not high on his priority list. Environmentalists may be thankful the Mackenzie pipeline isn’t as important to Harper as prisons or jet fighters. But Harper should remember that, so far at least, he hasn’t lived up to his rhetoric in the North. If he doesn’t up his game, they’ll end up naming that icebreaker after someone else. If it ever gets built, that is.
- Keith Halliday is a Whitehorse-based management consultant.