Stephen Harper's trade trip to India brings to mind his predecessor, Paul Martin. Of the reasons Mr. Martin lost the 2006 election, few had to do with him personally, let alone his economic ideas. One subject he usefully focused on was the role of China and India in Canada's economic future.
He was so persistent in talking up this shift in the world order, he felt obliged to poke fun at himself at a Press Gallery dinner. Transcripts are unavailable, but here's the gist of what he said, in jest: "You may not be aware of this, but the world is changing. Oh, it's changing fast. Trust me, it's been in all the papers. I speak of the rise of China and India, or as I refer to them collectively, 'Chindia.' They, they will soon be mega-countries. And after that, super-mega-countries. And finally, in a few years' time, they will be super-duper-mega-countries with kung-fu grip. My fellow Canadians, we are screwed."
Six years later, it would be interesting to know Mr. Martin's views on Mr. Harper's ownership of the "Chindia" file. Trade and investment flows with emerging economies are becoming central to economic policy – and potential fault lines in our politics as well.
Increasing foreign trade and investment may be vital to Canada's standard of living but have often been a tough sell politically. We prefer to own our own businesses and export more than we import. So do people everywhere else.
In general, so far, the Harper government approach is aligned with mainstream public opinion. Some groups on the left vigorously oppose trade agreements with more foreign markets, but most voters have decided this approach is worth continuing. On foreign investment, the government has taken a pragmatic, case-by-case approach rather than an ideological posture.
But one of these things is not like the others. How we define our relationship with China could become a ballot-box issue in the future.
Some are assailing the Conservatives over delays in revealing how they intend to calculate Canadian net benefit on inbound foreign investments. But whatever risks Mr. Harper faces in taking his time, bigger risks lie in getting it wrong. It is one of the more complex and explosive policy areas the government will address.
Many billions of dollars of Chinese investment in energy, resources and infrastructure are circling the globe, looking for a place to land. There's temptation to welcome it all. However, the economic calculus is far from straightforward. The wrong step could put healthy Canadian companies in harm's way, forcing them to compete with massive government enterprises that have more financial power, fewer constraints and less disclosure.
If the economic analysis is complex, the political one is also rather unique. Superficially, one might expect voters on the right to welcome freer trade and wide-open investment flows. But many small-c conservatives distrust state-owned enterprises. Investments from non-democracies raise more questions. Conservative supporters see themselves as rock-ribbed entrepreneurs and champions of democracy.
Canadians want more economic growth, but their embrace of trade deals and investment from China will remain cautious. A minority will oppose under any circumstances. But the vast majority won't yet have a firm view. The debate will matter. Transparency will matter. The details of trade agreements will matter. Questions about tying the hands of future governments, exposing ourselves to lawsuits and 30-year time horizons will not go unnoticed.
But while there are risks for the Conservatives, somewhat uniquely, this policy area will also be one where voters from the near left to the far right will agree for the time being on what they want the Prime Minister to do: maintain a measured approach – both hands on the wheel, a foot on the accelerator, eyes aimed far down the road.