John Ivison: Federal Liberals latest exercise in vote pandering — identity trade missions

John Ivison
John Ivison

The government’s job is to give all Canadian businesses a leg-up — not pick those it favours in its constant dragnet for votes

Just when you thought the Liberals had applied their brand of identity politics to every facet of public life, they surprise you with a new way of pandering for votes.

Welcome to the concept of identity trade.

François-Philippe Champagne, the trade minister, tweeted out Sunday that Canada will launch three “landmark” trade missions this year — the first-ever LGBTQ2 mission; the first-ever mission devoted to indigenous business owners; and a women in business mission.

“Now is the time for a new approach to trade,” announced the minister, in apparent repudiation of David Ricardo’s 200-year-old theory of comparative advantage.

In the old days — before Champagne revealed his cunning plan — trade policy was based on promoting goods made by low-cost Canadian producers to other countries that might want to buy those goods at competitive prices.

In Champagne’s world of identity trade, “it’s time for more ambition and a whole lot more of us in the game”, particularly if you are a hyphenated business owner with an eye for some free government money. That should, of course, have read “with an eye for rapidly growing export markets.”

The move was not greeted by universal acclaim. It was Martha Hall Findlay, the former Liberal MP and current president of the Canada West Foundation, who coined the “identity trade” line. “I worry separating people like this into groups does not connect them but creates divisions and silos,” she tweeted.

Even senior Liberals expressed skepticism.

“There are 50 things I’d do before this. Extending loans to develop markets within Canada is a higher priority,” said one official, on condition of anonymity.

There is nothing wrong with the government facilitating trade. Anyone who has been on a trade mission to a country such as China knows the daunting challenges facing any small or medium-sized enterprise that tries to enter a strange market-place on their own.

But the government’s job is to give all Canadian businesses a leg-up — not pick those it favours in its constant dragnet for votes.

The groups that are part of Champagne’s new initiative are clearly eligible for any regular trade mission. Is there a need for this new initiative?

Joseph Pickerill, Champagne’s communications director, said there have been “legitimate barriers” to the targeted companies going global, without elaborating on what the barriers are.

He said the government will send a mission to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce conference in Philadelphia in August; one to the World Indigenous Business Forum in Rotorua, New Zealand in October; and, a mission to the Business Women in International Trade in Detroit in June.

“We can do a lot more, get more people into the game, secure new competitive advantage, grow the pie and increase productivity,” he said.

But it is in that last area that the Trudeau government should be putting its focus.

As the Bank of Canada noted in its latest monetary policy report, released last week, there has been a steady downtrend in Canada’s share of non-energy goods exported to the United States in recent years — a decline that has not slowed, despite the depreciation of the Canadian dollar. “It is indicative of the on-going competitiveness challenges that some Canadian exporters face,” the bank said.

U.S. tax cuts and uncertainty around NAFTA have not made life easier for exporters. But it is the long-standing hell’s brew of dense regulatory issues, carbon pricing, minimum wage hikes and soaring electricity prices that have combined to reduce the competitiveness of Canadian exporters.

Fluffy headlines about Canada’s progressive trade agenda do little to cloak the truth that this country’s export performance is anaemic. The patience of many voters for such blatant pandering is wearing thin.

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